Select Page

      Contemplate ThisSylvesterNancy_headshot

Reflections by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

National Catholic Reporter’s Special Project: Global Sisters Report

Contemplation: A Call to All

April 2014 When I was a little girl I loved to say my prayers. The prayer books available to Catholics in the ‘50s were varied and lovely. Some had gold edges; others gave you ribbons to mark your favorite passages. Sitting in the gently enfolding darkness of the church with a hint of beeswax or incense in the air invited God’s presence into your life. Novenas and special missions complemented the rosary, Stations of the Cross and Mass. The words, the images, the chant, the songs offered you everything you needed to live this life and the one after you died. I knew who God was; what “He” wanted; how to act toward “Him” and others; what to do to be saved. I loved God and felt secure and safe in “His” presence.

 This spirituality was mine for many years, as I’m sure it was for most Catholics, and for many it still is.    Praying with prayers is important and good. It carries many of us through critical moments of our life, be they sad or joyous. However, growing up I didn’t learn about another mode of prayer that is also based in our tradition, which is contemplation. A form of prayer that is wordless. This form of prayer I have been practicing close to 30 years and believe it is part of the spiritual journey for     everyone  as we explore how to integrate our faith into the realities of our 21st-century lives.

But this shift didn’t happen overnight.

When the Second Vatican Council ended, I entered religious life. Those first three years chaosof formation introduced me to the theology that was part of shaping the council: an ecclesiology that taught that the church is immersed in the world; that the church is the people of God; that there is a priesthood of believers; that all walks of life are equal. We were to study Scripture using the biblical scholarship that was available to us and to understand that revelation is ongoing. Sacramental theology was placed in the wider context of the sacramentality of life. We were invited to study other Christian denominations and to attend their services. We were taught about the primacy of conscience.

For a pious girl from the south side of Chicago, it was mind blowing. I was not only being stretched intellectually but also spiritually. We were taught how to pray, which included the tradition of Christian mysticism especially that of Teresa of Avila. I began reading Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton. Theology and spirituality were complemented by classes in philosophy and the social sciences. Everything was changing. The God I knew; the afterlife I took for granted; how I understood Scripture and Jesus; ethics that went beyond personal morality – everything changed.

Needless to say I experienced a crisis in faith.

During a private directed retreat after I had taken my first vows, I heard so clearly that I had the gift of faith but that I would have to give up the faith of my childhood so as to continue to encounter God in new ways throughout my life. That spiritual experience is a touchstone and continues to energize me today. It rooted me and gave me the courage to follow the desire to know God more deeply and in new ways.

My journey was circuitous, and around 30 years ago became more focused on the prayer of silent mediation and contemplation. In the beginning I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the practice as I had to free myself from the false assumption that contemplation is privatized and passive. I had become immersed in the Catholic social justice tradition and worked for systemic change as I ministered for years with NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, in Washington, D.C. Contemplation for me could not be passive. Out of contemplation must arise radical action.

Over the years as I served in congregational leadership and in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, my practice deepened. Having the great gift of a spiritual director who for 22 years invited me into a yearly, week-long “no rational thinking or reading” retreat, the experience of non-discursive prayer began to free me of my shoulds, musts, coulds and woulds. I became aware of my biases, assumptions, worldview and expectations. Contemplation was indeed not passive, but I did not control the results. Contemplation invites you to take a long loving look at the real. That became very clear to me as I came to realize that many women religious and other laity were at an impasse with some in the hierarchical church. The ways we knew how to bring about change would not work. I spoke these words in my presidential address in 2000 to the LCWR Assembly and reflected that we had to respond from the deepest part of our selves, that we needed to respond out of a contemplative place, communally. This realization led me to found the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue in 2002. Over these 14 years I have experienced the profound transformation that contemplative practice invites us to. It is a transformation not only for our church but for our world as well. We are living at a critical time in our evolutionary journey, and I firmly believe that people of faith have an important contribution to make to the transformation that is so needed. Through a series of articles over time, I will continue to reflect on the practice of contemplation, on the experience of it personally and communally, on the power of it to transform our consciousness, on the invitation it is to us to be Christians in the 21st century. Experiencing the Divine presence is a gift we’ve all been given. We simply need to take a long loving look at what is already there.   [Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Prior to that, she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

 When Words Don’t Work

May 2014 Have you ever said, “That word doesn’t work anymore,” when you were trying to explain something? You had to fish around for a word, a phrase that might capture what you wanted to say because you realized that the old way of talking about things didn’t quite match your experience. Such a moment brings home to me the power of words, of language. Words are powerful vehicles not only for communication between and among each other but as constructs conveying a worldview or a belief system. Words shape our thinking and our imagination. Prayers shape our religious imagination. When we refer to God as “He” or “Father” and talk of heaven as being “up there,” those words reflect and shape our thinking, making God  a male human person and heaven a place existing in the sky. Each reflects a theology and a cosmology that has come to us over the generations. Many prayers we learned growing up existed over the centuries. They are a source of comfort. They are known by most of us. Some we speak almost without thinking because they have become such daily offerings – they simply flow out of us. We just take the words for granted. There are transition times, however, when the words one uses become very important. I believe we live in one of these times. I think about our language regarding race. In the ‘60s many of us who are white and living in the U.S. began to see for the first time that being white privileged us in ways that we weren’t even aware of. I remember watching a film in the early ‘70s, narrated by Bill Cosby, which showed how the images in films and the language we used for those other than the white majority were pejorative and demeaning; they often equated anyone of color with evil or badness, laziness or distrust. The words we used shaped how we saw, experienced and felt about those who were not like us. Once we realized that, we began to change how we spoke of those who were not in the majority. Certainly the language that shapes our beliefs about the afterlife reflects a cosmology of an earlier time. The richness and beauty of what we are learning about an evolving Universe is sorely missing from our religious imagination. You may be wondering, “What does this have to do with contemplation?”bubbles

Well, contemplation invites you to surrender the words that interpret our faith, our experience of God. It is a wordless prayer. It is a form of non-discursive meditation.

I know I needed to find a way to pray, to experience God that did not force me to do mental gymnastics with every word I heard or read. I needed to experience God in another way. Contemplative practice was where I was drawn. In the Gospel of John we hear that Jesus and his Abba God will come and dwell with us . . . that Jesus is in God and we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us. The mystics of every faith tradition experienced this reality, and contemplation opens you to that gift. Meister Eckhart, a theologian and mystic of the Middle Ages, wrote, “And so I ask God to rid me of God.” It invites us to quiet our minds. There is no need to try to understand the words of a prayer or of scripture. No need to ponder, “What does that mean for me today with what I’m learning about x, y or z.?” “How does it all fit?” It invites us to empty ourselves of the blast of thoughts that bombard us as soon as we are silent. They take many forms, but often they are the shoulds, coulds, woulds, and what-ifs of our lives. Contemplation invites us to be present to this moment and to drop deeply into the soul space so as to experience the Divine presence, opening us to “take a long loving look at the real,” as the English mystics described contemplation. The journey into that deep place is gift freely given and is cultivated through practice. In the next reflection I’ll focus on the practice and offer some ideas as to how to begin and how to deepen one’s contemplative practice.   [Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Prior to that, she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

 Stop Staring

September 2014 My aunt had a cottage in Michigan City, Ind., and she would let each of her sisters with their families have the use of it for two weeks during the summer months. The drive from Chicago where I grew up took about an hour and a half. I would always want to sit in the back seat on the passenger side. There I would turn and just look out the window. I loved to see the cityscape turn to fields and wooded areas. I liked not talking but just staring. In fact, later when I was already in the convent and teaching at one of our high schools the sister I lived with often said “stop staring” as I would sit in the living room in the morning praying but obviously looking up and seemingly through her. In retrospect I think those moments hinted at my attraction to a contemplative practice! Contemplation takes many forms. Being in and with nature is a common way that many of us begin to experience the presence of the Divine. I know that was part of those rides home from Michigan City as well as walking in the woods and laying on the beach feeling the warmth of the summer sun and watching the clouds skim across me and the sand. The use of our imagination in picturing ourselves in a Gospel story leads many of us deeper into encountering the Divine. “Lectio Divina” treats Scripture as the living Word of God and is a practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God which many people practice. Walking meditation teaches us “mindfulness,” another way of becoming still and present. Poetry and art can move us to a different state of consciousness as well. What I have been drawn to for the past 30 years or so is contemplation born in a form of “empty mind,” a silence or stillness that invites you not to thinking, not imagining, just emptying. I am an extrovert and a very rational person, so this attraction was a bit surprising. But as I became more steeped in the Vatican II understandings around Scripture and the many contextual theologies that emerged – ie. liberationist, feminist, womanist, mujerista, eco-feminist – I found that words that had expressed my faith for me became less meaningful and, in fact, often stumbling blocks to it. I found myself drawn to a less wordy form of praying. A major focus is on “attention.” I would follow my breath as it flowed in and out. One could also use a word or phrase. Within the Christian tradition we talked about using a mantra, such as Maranatha, Jesus Mercy, etc. The purpose of following one’s breath or repeating the mantra with the in breath and out breath was to still our minds. They were ways to bring us into the presence of the Divine dwelling within us. More recently I have begun to practice a type of contemplation that has become known as “centering prayer.” Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk, has been a leader of developing this form of Western, Christian contemplation, and Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, continues to develop it in ever deepening ways.

staringThis form of contemplative practice focuses more on “intention” than on attention. There is still a word or phrase involved, but in this case it is a sacred word you choose or which chooses you. As you begin your sitting practice you pray this word gently, steadily. It is your way of acknowledging your willingness to be open to the presence and action of God during this time.

Every time you find yourself thinking a thought, feeling an itch, getting a good idea, discouraged that you can’t do this well . . . you say your word and it brings you back to the space you are creating in yourself to be open to the Divine. It is a prayer of surrender where you keep letting go and dropping down into the place of stillness. Having practiced following my breath for years I still find it difficult to really let go, but I am experiencing some significant shifts in my life as I continue this practice. It is not simply staring. So how do you start?

When I present this practice to groups I address, I begin by inviting them to be grounded. Of course that refers to touching into the energy in the room but it also means to get comfortable in the chair or whatever posture you have chosen for the sitting. The purpose is to allow your body to be the conduit of energy that it is meant to be for us. You don’t want your body to be a distraction but rather a support for the practice.

Then to sit straight. Our spine wants to be straight. Think about being a puppet on a string which the marionette pulls gently bringing you up just a little bit more. Then make sure your shoulders relax then lower and tuck your chin in a bit. You will find the position which allows you to be still and comfortable. Close your eyes (but if you start to sleep then open them). Now you are ready to begin your practice. Say your word and then let it drop away. It is suggested that you do this practice for 20 minutes, once or twice a day. This brief reflection may get you started, but there are many good resources available for you to really learn and deepen the practice. I would highly recommend, Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. In addition, the ICCD web site: www.iccdinstitute.org under “Engaging Impasse, Reflections” has reflections on contemplation and numerous resources for your use. Let me end with Maya Angelou’s final tweet which embodies her contemplative spirit: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”   [Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Prior to that, she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

Contemplation and Changing Consciousness

August 2014

“Be the change you want to see in the world” is a phrase I am sure you have heard. Changing, however, is not always easy. Having wanted to be perfect when I was a little girl, I was not attracted to change. Change implies giving some things up and receiving new ideas, insights, values, etc. Why would you want to do that? We were taught that God is perfect and unchanging and that in our culture leaders were leaders if they never changed their minds – if they didn’t blink! You were to develop your identity, values and beliefs and maintain them throughout your life. So what is so great about change? We are learning from quantum physics that change is our one constant. Everything around us including ourselves is constantly evolving and changing. Every interaction we have affects us and helps shape who we are becoming. But it is not just through what I have studied that I now value change. It is also through my experiences. Having grown up a Catholic and white on the South Side of Chicago in the ‘50s, I was gifted with a set of lenses through which I viewed the world. A whole set of assumptions, beliefs and values shaped me and provided a way of navigating through my world. At different stages of my life I either read something or experienced something that made me pause. All of a sudden what I knew didn’t fit what was before me. I couldn’t make sense of it. It was as if I was blind sighted . . . I couldn’t see it because my lenses were too restrictive. Those moments, when I faced into my white privilege or my church’s unequal treatment of women or a new understanding of how the Universe came into being or the clerical abuse scandal, were invitations to change. They were moments where the lenses with which I made sense of the world were broadened and I was invited to let go and to integrate these new realizations into my consciousness. For me, bringing these experiences to prayer has been lifesaving. When I go through a shift in my consciousness – the way I view the world; the assumptions, beliefs and values I operate out of – I can feel so alone. My “critiquer” who sits on top of my head is full of admonitions, negations, doubts and warnings. The egoic self which I have cultivated for so many years does not want to change. It takes a lot of work to open myself up and allow the truth of these new realizations to shape me anew.

 

Thomas Merton called le pointe vierge. It is “a point of nothingness at the center of our being which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . . .”
 

I believe that contemplative practice softens our hearts and minds in ways that can embrace the changes that are part of our becoming more complex, evolved human beings. There is much written today about how our consciousness changes in developmental ways. Our becoming more is what we are called to as members of the human species and as persons of faith. We are called to encounter what Thomas Merton called le pointe vierge. It is “a point of nothingness at the center of our being which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . . .” Thomas Merton called le pointe vierge. It is “a point of nothingness at the center of our being which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God . . . .” The journey to that point passes through contemplation. As I have practiced contemplative sitting, I discovered I want to change. I want to change how I am with others and with myself. I find that as well among the women and men whom I encounter in my work. Here are some ways of listening that I have found helpful as I journey toward “le pointe vierge.” 1. Be soft, spacious and welcoming to that which is strange, threatening or different. Too often my initial reaction to what I don’t like is to resist it. I get hooked and begin to respond in predictable ways defending my position; dismissing or demeaning the other’s position; walking away; avoiding the topic or the person at all costs. We have inherited the fight-or-flight response from our earlier mammalian ancestors. I believe we are being challenged to develop a more complex response that comes from that deeper space within us. What if we welcomed in that other – be it an idea or a person? What if we embraced her, it, and them? What if we made room for what they are offering to us? How would that begin to change us? How would that begin to shift our assumptions about who is right and who is wrong? What is truth and who has it? Who belongs and who doesn’t?

These dispositions of the heart being soft, spacious and welcoming to the other and to ourselves I believe will change us.

2. Be open, maintain boundaries and be hospitable. Too often I can be open to others more easily than I can be to myself. As I mentioned earlier I envision my egoic self, ready to critique everything I do, sitting on top of my head. Front and center. Nothing gets by her. When I face up to a bias or a prejudice, she either makes me feel that it is justified or the opposite – how awful I’ve been to act like that. As I’ve cultivated my contemplative practice and keep surrendering, I can be more open to who I am in my multi-faceted self, capable of quite a spectrum of behaviors and thoughts, and in that realization becoming more and more aware of the unconditional love of the Divine. When I think of boundaries I usually think about keeping something or someone out. Here I want to address keeping oneself “in” – the process, the journey, the moment. As you begin to want to change how you are listening to yourself and others I’ve found the importance of being faithful to the present moment. This is a challenge in a time when multi-tasking is seen as a high value! Distractions are as close as that click on your smart phone announcing that something more important is possibly happening than what you are currently doing or whom you are currently with. These distractions take us away from the other but also from ourselves. Contemplative practice helps us keep our boundaries. We set the intention and we sit. Over time the distractions lessen. Faithfulness to the practice is keeping boundaries. Like the disposition of welcoming, being hospitable is opening ourselves to receive the new, the different. It is to pursue an idea or a thought that someone has offered or which has come to you in a dream or a moment of reflection. Cultivating an attitude of being hospitable invites you never to dismiss someone’s comment or ignore someone in a conversation. The world we are living in is in need of change. In cultivating a more contemplative heart and way of listening I believe we are developing a consciousness more aligned with the Gospel values of right relationship, justice, non-violence, love and compassion. We can begin to live the Gospel as we become the change we want to see in our world. That change is worth it. That’s why we change. In the upcoming reflections I’ll share more about how engaging in contemplation invites you to change behaviors as well and how we can begin to exercise contemplative power. [Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.] Click to read more. You will be directed to the National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report.

Refugee children crossing our border and U.S. citizens trying to block them, Israelis and Palestinians, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Russians and Ukrainians, the Shias and the Shiites, Christian and Muslim. The list goes on as I ponder the atrocities that are continuing in the name of God, of country, of truth, of self-defense. In most cases there is no capacity to listen to the other, to engage the other, and so the stalemate continues and the violence increases. Locked into separate silos there is apparently no connection, no relationship. I agree with so many thinkers today that we are living in a pivotal moment of our evolutionary history. It is not unique but it is our moment. System thinkers refer to it as the chaos point when all the old ways and structures are facing breakdown or breakthrough. I believe as people of faith living in this chaos point there is an invitation to risk new responses that engage the differences we experience and begin to build trust among us once again. I took seriously each of his concerns and he in turn respected the data that I was able to gather from local areas. This back and forth helped to shape the final language of the amendment. On the day of the vote this senator voted in favor of the NETWORK amendment. I remember sitting in the Senate gallery and catching the eye of the aide expressing in my smile gratitude for his working with me and believing what I offered. Later that year a conservative group put out their annual voting record. This particular senator always received a 100% ranking from them. This year he didn’t. They counted this amendment as one of the votes, and his vote supporting it cost him his perfect score.

I offer this example because what I believe happened is that the aide and I began to trust each other. We were both willing to acknowledge that the positions and the questions on both sides were legitimate. I didn’t dismiss them or give up on this senator, rather I took the concerns seriously and did what I could to find out whether or not they were real and would hurt these other constituencies. The senator in turn trusted his aide and was willing to buck his usual supporters and vote on an amendment that would be used against him when the voting record was issued. That happened in the late ‘70s, and it pains me to see how that kind of working together across ideologies is close to impossible today. But it took time, respect and eventually trust to move beyond held positions. It takes time to believe in new data that conflicts with what you think, to entertain a different solution and to risk standing with a group with whom you usually are opposed.

Certainly what we face today is far graver and more complicated than this example. But I see the outline of how a sustained practice of contemplation opens you to wanting not only to listen differently to others but also to engage them in new ways as well. Not an easy endeavor nor a quick fix. What I do know is that the ways that we currently try to approach the crises of our time do not work. We’ve had hundreds of years trying them. So What If? What If . . . .

  • We were willing to take the time to come together with people who differ?
  • We held our own positions gently yet with integrity?
  • We listened to each other out of a contemplative heart?
  • We were curious about where we differed with each other?
  • We explored those differences seeking understanding?
  • We created the space where synergy might be possible?
  • We were willing to shift our hold on our individual truth so as to affirm the emerging truth of the whole?

I continue to struggle with the challenges this holds for the “activist” in me. How do we do social justice work in this spirit? But I believe there is something here that people of faith are in a unique position to explore and to offer as we move toward breakthrough. In the next reflections I’ll share some of the ways ICCD has been exploring Exercising Contemplative Power. [Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

Exercising Contemplative Power

November 2014

When I began the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) I consciously chose to focus on contemplation as a communal experience. Having been influenced by Constance Fitzgerald’s article, “Impasse and the Dark Night,” I instinctively knew that our time in the evolutionary journey required of us ways to share our experience of contemplation and the wisdom and insights that emerge. I felt our historical time invites us to socialize our learnings so as to discover together the next steps on the journey. Read more….

World’s Greatest Wireless Connection

January 2015 “Prayer. The world’s greatest wireless connection.” Those words on a sweatshirt greeted me as I opened a gift from my sister. I immediately thought this conveys one aspect of how we understand exercising contemplative power. Think about it. When we are on the Internet, we have instant access to almost anyone on this planet. Through an intricate web of electromagnetic waves, we can start a revolution – be part of a flash mob – generate interest so that an idea or an action ‘goes viral.’ Without seeing the waves radiating outward, we know we are connected. Cynthia Bourgeault reflects on the teaching that no conscious act is ever wasted. She reflects that, “Every conscious action no matter how miniscule connects energetically with every other action, and the quality and quantity of awakened consciousness increases incrementally on our planet.” That is not easy to grasp in our culture where the insights of the Enlightenment continue to shape our mental operating system. Reason, measurable outcomes and verification by our senses still trump intuition, insight and belief in deeper dimensions of reality. Positing this underlying connection where “everything is enfolded into everything” then the power of meditation or concentrated energy on a specific focus begins to make sense. There have been a number of research studies to see whether a concentrated effort by many meditators can effect an outcome. I was recently reminded of a study that was published in 1985 in the Yale University Journal of Conflict Resolution that reported on a group who meditated in Jerusalem in 1983 during the height of the Lebanese Civil War. During the summer of 1983, on each day in which there were large numbers of meditators, violence dropped and stayed low for an additional day or so and then went back to its previous levels. The final data revealed that whenever the group of meditators assembled, there was an average of a 76 percent reduction in war deaths.

A similar research study took place in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1993. Approximately 4,000 meditators assembled. It was hypothesized that the levels of violent crime in the District would fall substantially during the time they were present and meditating. In fact after taking into consideration other variables, it was shown that the level of homicides, rapes and assaults dropped significantly corresponding to the number of meditators. The maximum decrease was 23.3 percent.

We are learning more and more about the power of our consciousness-individual and collective – and the powerful energy field which can be created when we align our minds and hearts with the deeper reality underlying all things. Studies and experiments are increasing as more and more scientists give credence to the influence a community can have on an individual, as well as the individual on the whole community, through the vibratory energy field that they emit. One of the leading organization is IONS, the Institute for Noetic Science. Dean Radin, IONS chief scientist, is undertaking experiments to explore the special attributes of meditative practices as well as the nature of collective consciousness on the world, to name a few. This broadening interest by science is exciting. It is offering another way of thinking about our world and our lives which will speak to those for whom faith and spiritual wisdom lack credibility. For me, it is a real breakthrough so needed today. The insights of science interface with the wisdom of the mystics, each offering the other legitimacy as we explore who we are and why we are here. One way the institute invites you into this aspect of exercising contemplative power is to become part of the ICCD Contemplative Sitting Network. You are invited to commit to sitting in contemplation for 20 minutes daily between 6 and 7:30 a.m. in whatever time zone you are in (or which best suits your needs). Currently we are over 400 persons, mainly in the United States but representative of many different countries, who create this energy field focused on personal, societal and ecclesial transformation. If you would like to join us simply click here to fill out the form to add your conscious act to our powerful wireless connection!   [Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Mich., as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

Exercising contemplative power in the face of growing racial, religious and sexual diversity

March 2015 by Nancy Sylvester

Too many atrocities bombard us when we pick up a newspaper, watch the news or read the many blogs and websites that come to us on a daily basis. The challenge for people of faith and those of us practicing contemplation is: How do we respond? Where do we begin to address these injustices? Two incidents which recently happened in and around Detroit (where I live) caught my attention, and I offer them as a reflection on exercising contemplative power.

One involved an Arab-American man who was talking to his children while shopping at a Kroger’s supermarket. He chose to speak in Arabic. Two white men, also in the store, were outraged at this and began to attack the man. A witness to the event said she heard the white men yelling “ISIS,” “terrorist,” “Go back to your country” and “raghead” before they began hitting the man. The police assured the community that this was not part of a larger effort but rather a “spur-of-the-moment event.”

The second involved a lesbian couple who brought their 6-day-old infant to the pediatrician whom they had chosen because of her reputation and holistic approach to health care. They had met the doctor earlier and so she knew they were a lesbian couple. As they waited in the doctor’s office another doctor emerged to inform them that their chosen pediatrician had a change of heart. After “much prayer” she decided that she couldn’t treat their baby because they are lesbians. The doctor did write a letter to the couple apologizing for the hurt and angry feelings that were created by this and asking them to accept her apologies.

Your immediate reaction may be: Wait a minute these are two very different situations. And they are. There are many differences between these two incidents, but what I see they both embody is the challenge we face as we live into an evolving world which is oriented toward greater compassion, complexity and deeper understanding of our unity rather than our differences.

We are at the early stages of this evolution. At a time of such great transition fear looms large within us. We act unconsciously out of the worldviews we have inherited, learned and fed. One major fear is that of difference. We tend to identify ourselves and others by how we are different. I say I am thin (not fat), I am white (not a person of color), I am Polish (not Irish), I am Catholic (not Jewish) etc. Each one of those affirmations holds feelings, ideas, values, expectations and beliefs that shape my reactions to situations.

In times of stress and transition those assumptions can come into play in ways that can be destructive and hurtful. We react in ways that defend the way we believe things are, and perhaps more importantly, how they should be.

Take the men in the first situation. Hearing Arabic being spoken in a Detroit suburban grocery store triggered a reaction that far exceeded the act. Here is a father who is Arab-American speaking to his children in Arabic. What might have gotten triggered in those seconds prior to the assault? Perhaps these were some of the unconscious thoughts: “Who does he think he is not speaking English . . . real Americans speak English . . . he’s giving a bad example to his children . . . He’s not really one of us . . . Look at him he looks like the terrorists who are trying to destroy us . . . He has no right to be here.” Unconsciously each trigger grew in intensity and fed a reaction that in this case turned violent. The “spur-of-the-moment event” had its roots in years of unconscious beliefs and attitudes.

What about the pediatrician? What might have been triggered in her? In this case she had some time to think about the promise she had made to the couple to care for their infant knowing they were lesbians. Perhaps these kinds of thoughts moved through her: “I don’t know what I think about homosexuality. I liked them, but I’ve been taught homosexuality is wrong. My religion is adamant against gays and lesbians. Do I feel I’d be supporting this kind of lifestyle and behavior if I cared for their child? How can I support this which is so unnatural? What will my family think? How can I do this with integrity? I can’t, can I? But don’t they have rights? Didn’t I promise to take care of all people when I took my oath? Well, other doctors can do it. I’m not the only one.”

The doctor’s action, the letter she wrote to the couple, was more measured than the men in the first situation. Yet, it was still a reaction that defended her worldview when faced with an invitation to make room for different expressions of sexuality in her patients as she exercised her rights and responsibilities as a doctor.

I know there are many other ways to look at these two situations and to critique what I’ve just written. I didn’t want to analyze the situations but rather to use them as examples to show how when faced with those whose differences threaten my way of seeing things, I, too often, react in a defensive way flowing from unconscious assumptions, beliefs, values that are part of my worldview.

Contemplation invites us to become more conscious, more aware of what has shaped us. It opens us to greater ambiguity and paradox. Taking a “long loving look at the real” acknowledges that what we see is not necessarily the only view; rather we always see through a lens that is partial and too often cracked. In opening ourselves to the work of the Divine within us we are allowing ourselves to see how we judge, react, assume. Contemplation invites us to see things as others see them and open ourselves to compassionate love which widens our vision rather than restricting our view.

I believe we experience these kinds of situations more often than we think in our daily life. Perhaps not as dramatic as the ones that get in the newspaper, but the increasing racial, religious and sexual diversity within our country is “in our face.” For many it signifies a loss: loss of identity, loss of morality, loss of our way of life. The reaction then is one of pulling back, staking one’s claim, defending what was and building the walls of separation even higher.

As I reflect on exercising contemplative power, I see it very operative in such everyday moments. We need to become more aware of our own biases, prejudices, assumptions and worldviews. In doing so, we can become more sensitive to where other people are coming from and why they feel and react the way they do. Deepening our contemplative practice frees us to speak clearly and passionately to the injustice or lack of consciousness without judgment or righteousness. It emboldens us to speak our emerging truth not only to those in power but also to our family and friends as well.

Why is this important? Because in this country we are in a struggle to embrace the emergence of greater pluralism within our democratic society. Unless we can do that and come together to discuss the multiple issues facing the future of this planet, we will destroy ourselves. The diversity we are experiencing and are aware of through the Internet is far greater now than ever before. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the problems facing us at the same level of consciousness that created them. People of faith committed to fostering a more contemplative approach have something vital to offer toward the transformation of consciousness needed now more than ever.

Second, the direction of our evolving world toward greater compassion, complexity and deeper understanding of our unity rather than our differences is another way of expressing the Kindom of God. It is the Gospel promise embodied in the life of Jesus. It is the task of discipleship to help bring it about.

To read Nancy Sylvester’s entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

ECP with some Interesting Partners

April 2015 I was so excited to read an interview in the spring issue of YES! magazine between Ralph Nader and Daniel McCarthy by Sarah van Gelder. When I finished I felt this is an example of exercising contemplative power. Many of you know Ralph Nader from his dedicated work over the years on numerous issues, including: consumer protection, responsible government, anti-nuclear issues, environmental and ecological concerns and the convergence of corporate and governmental power. He was a candidate for president five times as a write-in for a Democratic primary, as the candidate for the Green Party and as an independent candidate. He is the icon for political activism on the left.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative magazine. This magazine often critiques the United States’ overseas wars, the use of torture and of corporate power. It is not a Rush Limbaugh strain of conservatism. He is considered, like Nader, a political maverick, on the right.

Sarah van Gelder is the co-founder and executive editor of YES! magazine whose mission is to support the building of a just and sustainable world. Each of the issues focuses on a theme and then uses the multiple lenses of new visions, world and community, the power of one, and breaking open to develop it.

In this interview they are exploring the possibility of a new left-right alliance against corporate rule, which is the subject of Ralph Nader’s newest book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. Nader makes the case that our definitions and understandings of both liberalism and conservatism have been “hijacked” by corporatism, and that if we get back to their original meanings, there is a convergence on a lot of major issues.

What becomes apparent as you listen in is that this is more like a conversation with direct exchange between the two men. Both Nader and McCarthy are willing to stretch themselves to understand what the other is saying. Using some of the proposals in Nader’s book, which Nader offers as those which conservatives can support, van Gelder asks McCarthy about them. McCarthy responds with frankness and openness. Both Nader and McCarthy respond to each other clarifying what was said, putting forth an additional fact or possibility and being willing to say – “you’re right.”

There is an honesty as they discuss climate change when Nader wonders what it will take to persuade conservatives that this isn’t a hoax. McCarthy acknowledges the role of the business community in wanting to keep it that way but then speaks to this being a cultural divide impacted by education and geography. He states that too many people on the left have a dismissive attitude toward evangelicals and anyone who doesn’t agree with them. He believes we all need to communicate with each other and that perhaps that is where we have fallen down.

McCarthy goes on to discuss how this too-easily dismissive attitude toward the other has grown over the years. For some the shifts in our country during the 1960s signaled that something had gone culturally wrong. They did not understand what was happening and so felt alarmed. It was easy to grab onto “God, gays and guns” or the hot-button issues rather than address the structural issues of reforming the economy, self-government or foreign policy. Jumping onto the cultural war has deepened the divide and ignored these very emotionally complex responses. Now we need to stop stereotyping each other and listen carefully to what we are saying.

Although no spiritual practice was mentioned during the interview, what I read resonated with me, and I said, “Yes, here is an example of exercising contemplative power.” The interview became a container creating a safe space for Nader and McCarthy to explore their differences and their commonalities. These two men behaved in ways that invited something new to emerge. They were willing to listen to each other through their differences. They were honest and vulnerable with each other – strong enough in their own positions to be willing to change or express possibility in another approach.

They learned from their experiences, which led to envisioning a place to begin – at the local level respecting the goodwill in each person regardless of political position where the clouds of misinformation and manipulation can be addressed. Key is not being afraid of the other side. We need to talk with each other knowing we may disagree but acknowledging that we are all people of goodwill who are capable of being reasoned with.

I knew Ralph Nader when I worked in Washington, D.C., and for many of us activists at that time reaching out to the other side was not very valued. To read his approach today I found myself smiling and saying ‘Yes’ this is what is happening all over the place. And this is the transformation which we contribute to as we engage in contemplative practice.

When the Tea Party was just starting to gain prominence, the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue invited people “to host a Coffee and Tea party.” The purpose was to bring together neighbors or colleagues who may hold different political positions to share a process focused on what we share in common: a beginning attempt to do what Nader and McCarthy are suggesting.

I’m sure the skeptic that lives within us is saying, “Oh, come on now. This isn’t really going to work.” So I want to end quoting McCarthy’s last response as it says so well what I believe:

Politics has become fighting for the sake of fighting for at least 30 years, and I think the results speak for themselves. Whether it’s foreign policy, whether it’s the economy – the country is in bad shape and it could get a lot worse. Both left and right are failing to achieve their own objectives with a strategy of conflict.

If that’s the case, then why are we continuing with this whole kabuki act? Why are we still having the same conflicts, using the same ritual language to denounce the other side, restating our own terms and our own principles in absolute terms that people who don’t buy into them can’t possibly work with? We have to look at a new kind of strategy. Ralph’s convergence idea is at least a starting point.

And so is exercising contemplative power!

To read Nancy Sylvester’s entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

ECP with the Vatican

June 1, 2015 Recently I had an opportunity to lead the discussion following the screening of the film, “Band of Sisters,” which I am in. It tells the story of how we women religious became involved with various ministries following the Second Vatican Council. It focuses on the emerging works of social justice, political advocacy, the movement toward sustainability and ecological centers and the transformation of consciousness rooted in contemplation. Woven within the film is the challenge women religious faced with the investigations initiated from two different Vatican Congregations. What became clear to me again is that the very ways we women religious responded to renewal and living out the Gospel became the basis for the concerns raised by the Vatican offices. The very process of the investigations demonstrated the Vatican’s failure to understand the transformation that had occurred with women religious during these past 50 years. The Vatican officials operated out of an approach reminiscent of a time when “Father knew best” and Sister humbly acquiesced. However, today women religious are mature adults whose experience is integral to how we discern challenges and accusations brought before us. We have years of practice within governance structures that value each person’s perspective. In these last decades LCWR and its member congregations have deepened a commitment to contemplation so as to communally discern how to imagine new ways of responding to what may appear as impasses in our lives. “Exercising contemplative power” (ECP) is a phrase that the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) coined to describe how we can be and act out of a contemplative stance. I invite you to read ICCD’s reflection paper on the meaning of exercising contemplative power. Prior to the investigations, LCWR began to integrate a contemplative process into its proceedings at the national assemblies. We took time to sit in contemplative silence together, setting the intent to be open to the Divine working within and among us. We experienced the importance of slowing down discussions so that we could really listen to each other and explore our differences. This approach intensified after the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announced its Apostolic Visitation in 2008. In the beginning there was concern, anger, disbelief and fear as the individual congregations were asked to participate in the investigation. Because women religious had been growing in trust with each other through LCWR and its regional meetings, it was natural that we turned to each other and entered into communal discernment as to how to approach what was being asked of us. Part of this first investigation involved a team of visitors charged to interview sisters within select congregations. It was apparent that this developed into an opportunity for leadership to involve their own members in looking at this from a contemplative place. In the ECP reflection, we speak of it as compassion which addresses injustice in a way that relates to each person in an exchange of mutual love and respect no matter the personal cost. The sisters who were interviewed spoke their truth honestly and clearly, even if it cost them. And in many situations they felt mutuality was created among the interviewees and the interviewers. As this investigation came to a close I heard only positive feelings toward Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ, who was appointed leader of the U.S. investigation. Something had occurred in the personal interactions and with the various team members to surprise both sides with our connectedness and our oneness in the midst of differences. In the ECP reflection we reference theologian Dorothy Soelle who spoke of contemplation as seeing things as God sees them which leads to an active resistance to evil. Following the announcement of this investigation the outpouring of support from laity in this country and around the world was overwhelming. They saw that what was being insinuated or clearly stated about women religious was just wrong. Letters of support for women religious were sent to LCWR, to individual congregations, to U.S. Bishops and to the Vatican.

This investigation came to a close in December 2014. The press conference to announce the conclusions included both women religious and the Prefect of the Congregation. Gratitude was expressed for U.S. women religious and their service to the church and to society, especially the poor. So different than the initial announcement. I couldn’t help but feel, just as we stated in the ECP reflection, that we women religious believed that if we entered that deep space things would realign and change would happen by holding the high consciousness.  Change had indeed happened.

The second investigation was focused on LCWR whose members are the elected leaders of U.S. women’s religious congregations. This was separate from the first investigation but closely linked. LCWR helped religious congregations enter into renewal following Vatican II and provided educational resources and theological reflection over these past 50 years. The annual assembly served as a time for all the leaders to discuss together the theologies coming out of Vatican II and the various ministries being engaged to serve emerging needs. In 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith completed a doctrinal assessment of LCWR and issued its mandate, which appointed a bishop’s committee to oversee the reform of LCWR according to the assessment’s findings. LCWR members continued to act the way we did with the first investigation. At the LCWR assembly we entered into communal contemplation to discern how to approach the mandate. We spent time listening to each other; feeling our humiliation and anger as these false accusations continued to be publicized; and hearing where we felt the same and where we differed. What became clear was that we wanted LCWR to stay at the table with the bishops appointed to oversee the mandate and not sacrifice LCWR’s integrity. The direction to the LCWR elected officers was clear and very challenging. LCWR has a rotating governing structure in which a third of the three-member presidency and a third of the national board rotates off each year and someone new is elected. That is why I think the image of a jazz ensemble is a good one to show how they exercised contemplative power. With the LCWR assembly decision to engage this process out of contemplation and dialogue, each elected leader was committed to a contemplative collaborative way of being. Each leader was committed to the direction set by the assembly, and yet each leader took her place at a specific moment in the process and had to listen and engage with everyone involved to sense when to move in and offer another perspective or to affirm what was being said. As the conversation continued different movements became possible and everyone was willing to shape the next intervention attuned to what went before and move it forward. This was especially true with the presidency and executive director during this time. They were the ones to invite the bishops into a new space to see what was happening with new eyes and to hear with new ears. Knowing from their contemplative heart that all are more connected then separate, they wanted and did emphasize relationships as much as the issues being addressed. They chose to relate to each person with respect and yet clearly state concerns no matter the personal cost. They did that both with the bishops and with the assembly. One of the challenges of exercising contemplative power is that you have to be willing to be changed as well. It is not easy to believe that those who have falsely accused you of something have anything worth listening to. That reactive stance is transformed into a responsive stance. Defences are softened and the common good emerges. This requires both an honest acknowledgement of falsehoods and misjudgements and a willingness to move forward together for the greater good of the church. I believe that is what happened. Both the women representing LCWR and the bishops changed. Something happened to bring closure to this mandate at the end of three years rather than five. They got to know each other and especially Archbishop Sartain got to know LCWR as he attended the national assemblies. The candour and strength with which LCWR remained at the table enabled a space to open and grace to enter. (I invite you to read the current presidency’s own reflections on the conclusion of the investigation and mandate.) I believe that both investigations provided LCWR and its member congregations an opportunity to reflect on who we have become since Vatican II. It was an opportunity to be in solidarity with one another knowing that, although not perfect, we have responded to the Gospel the best we knew how and it has transformed us. It was an opportunity to deepen the commitment to communal contemplation and action. It was an opportunity to exercise contemplative power.

Laudato Si’ . . . a Call to Contemplation

July 2015 Pope Francis’ encyclical,”Laudato Si’ , on Care For Our Common Home,” unequivocally names human behavior as a mspiral.ajor cause of global climate change and urges all sectors of society to examine our actions, policies and behaviors in light of this urgent situation. It speaks to how the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor are one and that all forms of poverty – environmental and human – need to be addressed in an interconnected way. However, as I read the encyclical I was struck with how it is much more than a moral exhortation on a very complex issue. I saw within it an invitation to contemplation. There was a section that caught my attention. It reads “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (111). When I give talks I often speak to how our consciousness both individual and collective evolves in a developmental way. I draw on the works of many scholars and use the spiral to give an image to this complex reality. It helps to understand what I’m saying if I describe what my spiral looks like. Picture a spiral that starts small and journeys upward and outward. At some point the arm of the spiral begins to shift upward and comes around again moving across the same terrain but from a different and wider circle. The spiral transcends its current path yet includes it as it goes around in its orbit. As consciousness develops it acts somewhat like this spiral. Because of changing conditions – i.e. the scientific revolution, the advent of quantum physics, new understanding of the origins of the universe – different values, beliefs, assumptions enter our consciousness, and like the arm of our spiral we shift upward and outward into greater complexity. New structures, systems, ways of living are created which may replace the old ways of doing/being or may exist side by side with what has gone before. These worldviews for the most part are like the air we breathe. We are not always aware of the forces that influence us until something happens. The spiral shifting is one such moment. The next evolutionary stage often occurs when the current dominant worldview or paradigm has exhausted itself and has begun to breakdown. That breakdown is felt very personally causing great discomfort, insecurity and even fear. Pope Francis makes the connections among all the numerous problems facing us that are part of environmental poverty and human poverty. He sees everyone and everything connected. He is inviting us to see beyond this atomistic worldview and generate a new way of looking, thinking, policy-making that will address these complex problems out of a new consciousness. Albert Einstein said we cannot solve the problems at the same level of consciousness that created them. I believe this encyclical echoes that belief. We know something is wrong with our world, with ourselves.

The pope addresses this when he talks about leaving behind the modern myth of “progress” when he writes, “There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. There is a growing awareness that scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history, a growing sense that the way to a better future lies elsewhere. This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life. . . . Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything.  Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness” (113).

“Humanity has changed profoundly” the encyclical states, and we are in the midst of a revolution. The arm of the spiral has begun to shift and to transcend the worldview that has dominated industrialized countries for over 500 years. Our response cannot be to go backwards – that is impossible. Rather we enter the future from this paradigm acknowledging its strengths and limits so as to include that which is of value as we continue outward interpreting our reality from this new place. We need to bring forth, as Pope Francis states, “. . . an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life.  A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal” (202). The encyclical is a call to address global climate change and tells us we can’t do it in the old ways. It is a call to a new way of being. For me, that is a call to contemplation: to see with new eyes; to respond out of that space of Divine indwelling. Then we will act out of this new awareness creating structures, policies, systems that support this emerging consciousness.

Taking a long loving look at authentic Religious Life

September 2015 The word “authentic” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “worthy of trust, reliance, or belief. Having an undisputed origin; genuine.” Thoughts of the apostolic visitation came to me, and I sense that some of what prompted it was a concern that some of us were not living an “authentic” religious life. There were assumptions and presumed criteria that became operative against which individuals and religious congregations could be judged. Lots of energy and resources went into trying to see if we were “authentic.” This summer I was privileged to “take a long loving look” at authentic religious life and saw with new eyes what it means. It struck me so clearly that I felt it was worth sharing. The experience was a gathering of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Michigan; and Immaculata and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The 2015 gathering of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from Monroe, Michigan; and Immaculata and Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Nancy Sylvester)

The desire for “authentic” religious life is part of our history. Theresa Maxis Duchemin, a woman of mixed race, was part of the founding community of the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1829. A series of events in the early 1840s caused Theresa to wonder if the Oblates were going to survive. This included increased racial tension and anti-Catholic sentiment resulting in fewer students enrolled in their school. This led to the sisters doing domestic work for financial support.  The death of their co-founder and spiritual leader, Father Joubert, a Sulpician, left the Oblates without an advocate as the new archbishop forbade them to accept new entrants and urged the sisters to return to the world as pious servants. One can only imagine how the Oblates felt. For Theresa it seemed that it was the beginning of their dissolution. To live “authentic” religious life for Theresa meant to abandon her Oblate sisters and journey to unknown territory where her light skin allowed her to pass as white. There on November 10, 1845, together with another Oblate sister who joined her and a young woman from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation (SSIHM) was founded. These first sisters lived in very challenging circumstances and yet immediately took the necessary steps to begin a school for girls, which opened its doors a mere two months after the foundation in January, 1846. The two former Oblates used their experience and expertise to establish the academy that taught all the academic courses as well as art, music, needlepoint and other crafts. Ministry and members began to expand, but circumstances began to change around 1855. The Redemptorists, with whom Theresa had a great affinity, withdrew from Monroe. An invitation came from Bishop John Neumann, also a Redemptorist, of Philadelphia to staff a school in Susquehanna County (Pennsylvania) — and eventually 12 sisters, half of the community, moved to that state. A dispute arose between the two bishops regarding their authority over the sisters. In the end the Bishop of Detroit blamed Theresa and removed her from her office as superior general. She joined the community in Pennsylvania and urged the remaining 12 sisters in Monroe to come join her. The bishop of Detroit exerted his control and forbade any communication between Monroe and Susquehanna. Theresa’s journey didn’t end there. She was unsettled by the separation of these two groups of sisters and believed that if she was out of the picture that perhaps they could be one again. Theresa decided to go and live with the Grey Nuns in Ottawa, which she did for 18 years. Here the “authentic” religious life she sought was to be experienced in a different country and within another well-established congregation. Then the two congregations became three. In 1871 the bishop of the newly formed diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, asked the IHM sisters who were now living in this new diocese to form a new motherhouse in Scranton, where these sisters would embody in new ways the spirit of Theresa as they lived out “authentic” religious life. Over the years there was very little communication among the three IHM branches and very spotty and uneven communication with the Oblates. There was a time when both the Monroe and Immaculata IHM superiors denied that Theresa Maxis was the woman who founded the congregations. They feared that would jeopardize their newly established women’s colleges serving an increasingly middle class, white population. In 1965 a Tri-IHM Education Conference was established to begin to bring together the three branches and to see how we might work together.  However, when renewal came the IHMs found themselves with two very charismatic leaders: Mother Benedicta (Margaret Brennan) of the Monroe group and Mother Claudia (Mary Claudia Honsberger) of the Immaculata IHMs. Each would put her stamp on the renewal of religious life — Margaret in helping transform the Conference of Major Superiors of Women into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Claudia in establishing an alternative group called the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis which was a precursor to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The two approaches to what was “authentic” religious life following the Vatican Council could not have been more different.

Fast forward to 1995 when we celebrated the Sesquicentennial of our founding. It was decided that the Oblate Sisters of Providence would be invited. This was the first time the Oblates had ever been to Monroe, to Theresa’s original IHM foundation. It was not easy for the Oblates to come and join with hundreds of white women who were celebrating Theresa. For in their history, Theresa had left them and in turn left hurt and anger. But as the sisters came into the dining room, the hundreds of IHMs stood and erupted into applause and cheers of welcome. That perhaps was the beginning of the long loving look.

I was privileged to be in leadership at that time and served on the Tri-IHM Conference Governing Board. When we met following the celebration, we were all newly elected leadership teams and began to pray together and to engage each other with great honesty. There had been what many considered a funny description of the three IHM congregations which appeared in the National Catholic Reporter’s write up of the event. One of the Immaculata IHMs shared how painful it was for her to read that. This opened up a significant sharing, which resulted in putting a moratorium on that description — never to be used again. We also knew that we could never know the heart of Theresa without the Oblates, and so we set in motion the transformation of Tri-IHM into what is now known as OSP-Tri-IHM. We left that meeting appreciating our differences. These past 20 years have allowed us to work together in multiple ways through committees dealing with anti-racism work and a common commitment to the people of Haiti which was Theresa’s heritage. So when we gathered in Scranton just a few weeks ago the feeling of being at home with each other was palpable. We all belonged. As I danced the last night with everyone else whether habited during the day and plain clothes at night or still habited or never habited when the song, “We Are Family” came on and the presidents of the congregations joined hands and danced, the mosaic fell into place. This is Theresa’s vision and desire. This is “authentic” religious life. My “long loving look” continues as I touch into the communality within our differences.  As we continue our journey along with so many of you, I continue to ponder what will be “authentic religious life” in the future . . . What I do know is that living “authentic” religious life is dancing together in ways that not only appreciate our differences but celebrate them as well.

We danced together at the gathering to celebrate our unity. (Nancy Sylvester)

 

October 2015     The swirl that I found myself in when I visited Washington, D.C. during the Pope Francis’ visit to the United States brought to mind Jesuit Fr. Bill Callahan, who in the early 1980s coined the phrase “noisy contemplation.” It was a clear call that we can all pray all the time no matter how hectic our lives become. It is taking the time to really see what is before us, no matter how fast we might be going. Having planned this trip with a good friend of mine, long before the papal visit was announced I went expecting to visit some of my old stomping grounds when I lived and worked in D.C. I read the pope’s schedule and the various street closings without thinking that they might affect me. However, once arrived, I began to get caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, the inside-the-Beltway buzz, the papal frenzy that kept me going from morning to night with very little alone time. It was a great time to practice “noisy contemplation.” What did I see as I was going so fast? Never having visited this memorial, we went there the day before the pope arrived. The entrance is a large piece of stone from which a section has been cut. You enter through that space and emerge to stand in awe at Martin Luther King’s likeness chiseled on that cut-out piece of stone. It towers high above you, dwarfing you and all the pettiness, hatred, violence and discrimination that persists in our world. The words on the side convey it powerfully. “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” He gazes out upon the Potomac and directly at the Jefferson Memorial — Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers and a slave owner. The decades, the abuse, the pain and suffering that had to happen before we could celebrate the life of Dr. King provide a perspective. It is one of hope. It can happen. We can see the humanity of the other. We can see the divinity of the other. Through it all.

Dominican Sr. Carol Coston, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. (Nancy Sylvester)

The fierce determination of women to keep their families whole As the pope was arriving in D.C., so were 100 women who had walked 100 miles urging immigration reform. Immigrants themselves, they told their stories of separation and abuse. One woman who had bone cancer and was in great pain and unable to walk just a couple of months ago was determined to gain the strength to make this walk, and she did. Although they weren’t sure they would see the pope, they wanted their message to be embodied in them for all to see. They make visible the desires and the hopes of those who still see the U.S. as a place of freedom and opportunity. They help us remember that nearly all of us have come from immigrant families. NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus had completed another trip to gather the stories of those women, men and children who are lacking the economic necessities to become who they are meant to be. These are stories of people living here who suffer from our unequal distribution of resources and the skewed budget priorities of our nation. We joined with many others to greet those women religious who had joined with the NETWORK staff to travel the 2,000 mile journey. The stops always involve women religious who are in service to those most in need, who have been in the trenches for years — some since NETWORK’s beginnings in 1972. Looking around at those gathered I was edified to see many whom I’ve known for years who continue to work for peace, justice, human rights and sustainability, and many whom I did not know. Young women and men are joining the staff or serving as interns and associates in many of the organizations. The next generation is taking their place alongside of those who know the power of “keep on, keeping on.” Fidelity to one’s values, one’s vision is itself transformative.

Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell speaking at U.S. Capitol for Nuns on the Bus Sept. 22. (GSR photo / Vinnie Rotondaro)

The tolerance and patience of the people living, working and gathering in D.C. that week Washington, D.C., is a town where time is a valuable commodity. Walk into a Metro subway and you begin to pick up your pace. If you have to transfer within the system you stand right where the door opens so you make sure you get on the very next train. Walkers, cyclists, drivers fill the city streets. This week closures were everywhere. Security on high alert. Crowds swarmed to enter the various venues and to just wait and see the pope. I found everyone to be incredibly tolerant of this Catholic leader coming to town and causing slowdowns galore. Smiles, politeness met me in whatever line I was in. There was no resentment about this Catholic phenomenon, rather a willingness to embrace it and be part of this event.

The experience of someone who lives out of his contemplative heart

Contemplation opens you up to paradox and ambiguity. It widens your perspective and makes you humble in the face of your own limitations and sinfulness. It frees you to speak courageously without judgement. As I listened, watched and experienced Pope Francis, I felt touched by his energy and his love. His message of mercy and joy flows from such deep conviction and experience. He encounters each one in a spirit of openness able to hold and bless one’s suffering and one’s joy. He challenges without judgement or righteousness. I hope in his choosing not to directly address the church’s positions on women and sexuality he is revealing to us his own blind spot and his willingness to take a long loving look at it in new ways. His presence is his message and it spoke to people — believers and non-believers, Catholics and those of other traditions. His witness spoke to my belief that as we transform our consciousness, the new ways we begin to speak and act are powerful and witness to what is possible. The faithfulness to love amidst many challenges While we were in Washington we stayed with two good friends. They are feminist theologians who founded and run a national organization. Their work takes them not only throughout the states but internationally as well. “Noisy contemplation” is not foreign to them. Over 13 years ago they adopted their daughter from an orphanage in China. As she began to develop it became apparent that she had language and learning issues. She would need extra help to learn how to speak and read. Their love for their daughter had and has no bounds. They give of themselves personally and invest financial resources to provide opportunities for their beautiful daughter to fulfill her potential. It is good to be back home returning to some quiet time, but I am glad the whirlwind of events led me to see more deeply what was happening around me. Let me end with words from Bill Callahan:

To sustain people as loving human beings during the long and arduous work of justice and peacemaking is the dream of noisy contemplation. . . . Experience continues to reinforce the conviction that ordinary people can pray deeply. Jesus prayed throughout a busy, ‘activist’ ministry. He encourages us to do likewise. Jesus engaged in noisy contemplation and so can we.

– William R. Callahan, Noisy Contemplation, Deep Prayer for Busy People; Quixote Center, Bentwood, Md., 2008

 

Buddhists and sand mandala (1000x563)by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

November 2015

An image swept over me toward the close of the Parliament of World Religions last month. I was swimming in the ocean. I saw the larger known creatures closer to the surface — whales, dolphins, swordfish — then I began going deeper seeing species of fish I didn’t even know existed. The variety of colors and shapes thrilled me. There were even those who were translucent because they live so close to the bottom of the ocean floor away from the light of the sun. So many different kinds, all unique, all necessary and all part of the evolutionary journey and the sea’s creative energy. We all gathered in Salt Lake City for the sixth Parliament of World Religions. The first was held in Chicago in 1893, and then 100 years passed before the second in 1993. The theme for 2015 was “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity: Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability.” In addition this year there was an inaugural women’s assembly prior to the formal opening. Over 3,000 women gathered to address violence and the systemic injustices women experience within their religions and cultures. We also celebrated the power of the Divine Mother and the wisdom of our foremothers. Reflecting on the power of contemplation I was in touch again with how the practice of contemplation widens the lens with which you see the reality around you. It opens you to paradox and to embracing greater complexity. I was no longer the “defender of my faith” against those who did not believe. Rather, I was a Catholic woman religious rooted in my faith and open to those whose path to the Divine is expressed differently.

Sufi whirling dervishes performing at the Parliament. (Nancy Sylvester)

Most of those gathered probably felt the same way. We were willing to share some of the most sacred aspects of our faith traditions, not to convert the other, but to offer another dimension, another lens to see the work of the holy in our midst. We weren’t in competition with each other, as we know the work to bring about a world of compassion, peace, justice and sustainability cries out for our collaboration.

The commitments we made as a body gave me great hope and spoke to a common vision. The six declarations focused on: climate change; support of emerging leaders; income inequality and the widening wealth gap; hate speech, violence and war; the dignity and human rights of women; and rights of indigenous peoples. There is the realization that people of faith need to come together around actions rooted in our spirituality and not simply words. Clearly it is a call to exercising contemplative power. Such issues and sentiments are also part of most of our religious congregations’ directions and chapter statements. I started thinking about being in the ocean again and our evolutionary journey. I remembered what Gail Worcelo teaches about emergence in the universe. There is a kind of pressure that builds up inside for more — more creativity. She talks about how the ocean was full, creating all kinds of species, but then became saturated. It could only create a variation, not anything new. At that point the pressure from within the sea pushed the first fish out onto the land. With that push began a new stage of creativity, of evolution leading to life in myriad of forms. Certainly the many religions will continue to exist. Many believers would not be comfortable at such a gathering. Yet I wonder if the Parliament may be part of that evolving creativity of faith that has been churning within humanity since our beginnings. That perhaps this ocean of religion has come to its creative fullness and the pressure of emergence is pushing its way into another dimension where new forms and new expressions of the Divine spirit can flourish in ways we cannot even imagine. Such wonderings scare me a little. I guess I’m not yet humble and free enough to let God be God. It is so hard to open oneself and surrender to the unfathomable depths of the Divine. But that is why I keep on “Contemplating This!”

CNS-Nativity (1000x666)

The Nativity scene is what comes to mind for many of us when we think about Christmas.

There is the manger with Mary kneeling by the infant Jesus with Joseph by her side. Often there are shepherds and a few sheep as well as some angels hovering in the sky. When St. Francis of Assisi created this image in the 1200s, he did it to remind people that this holy day is about worshiping God rather than gift giving. But this visual image did far more than that. For the people of his time it spoke to the felt sense of what this mystery was about, and it became a permanent part of our religious imagination.

Certainly this purpose is still relevant today but I’m afraid for many this Nativity scene is what the Incarnation is all about. Such a depiction of Incarnation may be helpful to teach young children about this mystery; however, the power of this mystery is so much more.

The world needs us to witness to this profound mystery more than ever. Listen to the rhetoric of many of the politicians and those running for president. We are at war with radical Islam. We need to eradicate the cancer of IS/ISIL. Build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep migrants out. Stop the resettlement process of Syrian refugees. Issue identity cards for Muslim U.S. citizens. Maybe let Christian Syrians into our country. We’ve got to be tough. Bomb them. People should have guns to protect themselves.

This toxic atmosphere belies our belief in the Incarnation, which reveals that we are all one. Our faith will fail us if we do not allow this mystery to penetrate our hearts in ways that call forth from us a more mature faith.

The Incarnation witnesses to the reality that God so loved the world that God became human. Human and Divine were one. Jesus’ early followers had experienced in him qualities and a consciousness that reflected God to them.

This profound experience of the early Christian community became a major issue as the early church tried to formulate how this could be. How could God be both Divine and human? Early church councils debated this and finally resolved it employing the philosophical categories and cosmological understandings of the time. As Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, too often the radical challenges of the profound mystery of the Incarnation were dismissed in service to other political or ecclesiastical purposes. The church’s articulation of this mystery continues to be the formulation articulated in a much earlier historical period.

Today we are learning so much about our world and our place in it through evolution, quantum physics and the breakthroughs in cosmology. I find myself wondering if there is an invitation in all of this to exercise and stretch our religious imagination as we contemplate the Incarnation.

Jesuit Fr. Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as a movement toward more complexity. He stated that the only real evolution is that of convergence, because it is positive and creative. For Teilhard evolution has a directionality toward greater complexity and wholeness. Many scholars today echo Julian Huxley’s insight that the human person is evolution become conscious of itself.

We are also coming to understand that cooperation and not competition is essential to survival. At significant points in the evolutionary process it was the convergence or cooperation between or among elements which formed something new. Evolution is marked by increasing wholeness in nature. As we have come from the same source we are evolving into the fullness of the Omega point, or in Teilhard’s words, Christogenesis.

Energy has a central role, as we are learning that the material universe is fundamentally energy. There are different forms of energy but all of life is charged with energy. Quantum physics tells us that a particle split in two can communicate over vast distances. Rupert Sheldrake posits the concept of a morphogenetic field that carries information from one generation to another making it easier for its replication in the newer person. As more and more of us begin to do something it becomes easier for others to learn it.

Such insights offer a new space within our religious imagination to play, to stretch, and to see if there are ways to complement the Nativity scene, the gift of St. Francis’ imagination.

What if we imagine . . .

God as Divine source, Divine energy, the vacuum present throughout the evolutionary process. God manifesting God’s self in the emergence of galaxies, earth, life and consciousness.

Then rather than feeling this story to be too cold, abstract and distant, we tell the incredible story of Jesus. Within this vast billions-year process of the universe becoming, Jesus witnesses to the unimaginable significance of a single life.

People who experienced Jesus knew him to be different than other teachers of his day. He preached a message of radical inclusivity. He welcomed the outcasts, the sinners. He spoke to women and included them as disciples. He healed the suffering and the sick. He gathered his friends as a community of equals. He told us to love one another as ourselves. He warned us that if we see a splinter in someone’s eye to look for the beam in our own. He related to all with compassion and mercy. He taught that we are all one, like his Abba God and he were one. He promised that his Abba God would dwell within each of us. His energy went out of him inviting people to come and see and then to follow. He was seen as authentic and lived what he believed to the fullest even when it alienated the powers that be. His followers witnessed him willing to suffer and die rather than betray what he believed to be the living out of his Abba God’s will.

What if Jesus accessed the fullness of divinity at a historical moment which was open to this emergence? In a flash of one life, God consciousness broke through to a new stage in the evolutionary process. What if Jesus holds the potentiality for everyone to access their God self?

What if we see ourselves as the followers of Jesus being part of a morphogenetic field? In the mystical body of Christ we have been evolving, learning throughout time how to be more like Jesus. What if the incarnation continues in you and me, in the evolutionary process? What if the process invites us to manifest God consciousness as Jesus showed us here and now so as to effect the evolutionary process toward wholeness?

Stretching our religious imagination can be fun, but it is also very challenging for it breaks open new ways of being and doing.

This Christmas you might want to play with reimagining this mystery. When you think about the shepherds looking at the sky, reflect for a moment on how the universe began. Gaze at the stars, the galaxies, and the immensity of it all. The shepherds knew something great was happening. What do you sense? Can you imagine God’s presence in a radically new way? You may just find yourself breaking out into songs of praise like the angels or becoming awe struck. Think about the family we call holy. Imagine how important every individual is and how each of us needs the other to discover our true self. Imagine how they must have lived sensing the presence of God in their lives and being open to see it in new ways so as to make choices that furthered the evolutionary process toward fullness.

We contemplate that in Jesus Divinity and Humanity are one. For some it is incomprehensible that this could happen with a simple carpenter’s son. For some it is even a scandal. Yet it is the profound gift of Incarnation-the realization that we are all children of God invited to share in the Divine Consciousness. Our planet is in need of us to accept that gift and live it.

This Christmas I am going to imagine giving that gift to everyone, sending forth the energy of our oneness. Perhaps you will join me. May you have a very merry reimagined Christmas!

Saturn, Nov. 26, 2012, Cassini-Huygens mission Imaging Science Subsystem image PIA14636. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Saturn, Nov. 26, 2012, Cassini-Huygens mission Imaging Science Subsystem image PIA14636. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

January 2016

I can see beneath the beautiful and also scary differences which we have constructed in our known world, I know we belong to one another. It feels like a loving invitation to see differently through the lens of our cosmic and evolutionary story. Since we are one species, the AI assumed we would share. The knowledge that the U.S. saw as something that would give it an advantage the AI understood to be knowledge that could enhance the species. Everyone would benefit. I began to remember my experience at the Parliament of World Religions. In that throng of 10,000 people, the human species was present in its great diversity and yet acted as one sharing vision, faith, ritual, meals, and political action. Think of the gathering at COP21 in Paris where a great many diverse representatives of our species came together to discuss how they must share the burden of stopping climate change and share the resources necessary — to help each other make the adjustments to their economy and to share their way of life. In both gatherings there was movement beyond the human species to respect and see the rights other species have as well. In the novel, we are not told which species created this “depot” or this particular AI, but its generosity and willingness to treat each species equally and offer its scientific knowledge so simply was not part of how the U.S. crew thought about what might be waiting for them. They brought to this new situation all of their old ways of seeing and thinking. Both the U.S. and Chinese crews operated in a similar way as they tried to figure out how to engage with each other as their travels coincided on the rings of Saturn. Suspicion, fear, greed and power were the lenses through which they operated. And acting out of those biases created choices that reinforced those exact sentiments. The new year will evolve according to the choices we make. God continues through our evolutionary future in the choices we make. We need to be awake to our true self, the God-self calling us forward. It is taking a “long loving look at the real” which will transform who we are and how we are in the world. It is seeing with a new lens, with new eyes, as the AI offered the human space travelers, that will transform what we value and what we choose. We realize that contemplation is a lifelong journey, an organic unfolding of truth into the world. You are a multi-dimensioned spirit-body, birthed from the divine heart, living on Earth. Only you and God-in-you knows who you are. Pray for the passion to seek your true nature, to love unconditionally, and to be empty of self. May your new year keep you “awake” and deepen your knowing of who you are and who we are as “one species.”

Flint IconSincere Smith, 2, pictured on the cover of the Feb. 1, 2016, issue of TIME magazine; the cover story is about the Flint, Mich., water crisis. (Cover photo by Regina H. Boone of the Detroit Free Press / magazine photo Nancy Sylvester)

An icon to contemplate this Lent

I first saw the child in the Detroit Free Press as the news was breaking regarding the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. His face wouldn’t leave me. I placed his picture where I pray so I could contemplate it.

Then the February 1 issue of TIME magazine had that picture on its cover. His face with the caption —The Poisoning of an American City — has become an icon to me of what happens when we forget the human connections with nature and make economics the highest priority in decision making.

Religious icons are sacred, holding an energy that is communicated to the observer. They reveal much more than what is depicted.

Look at his brown eyes. I see him peering out at me, at all of us who are looking. I see inquiring eyes asking us — what is my future? What is our future?

I believe he asks this for the untold numbers of children affected by drinking the water, which was contaminated by lead in this city of 99,000 residents. Lead is a neurotoxin that once inside the body damages or destroys the cells. It is particularly dangerous to children under 6 as the lead can permanently disrupt growing brain connections, resulting in decreased intelligence, learning disabilities and behavior problems. And lead stays in the bones for years to come.

His name is Sincere Smith. The definition of “sincere” is “free from pretense or deceit.” His questions about the future are without deceit, and he asks them not just for himself but for all the children in our major cities. Throughout our country a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of industrialization creates life-threatening conditions for too many of us. I see in his eyes a desire to know whether or not, we, the adults, believe that he has the right to grow up into his full potential with good health and with access to clean water, clean air and nutritious food.

Flint is a predominately African-American city with 40 percent of people living in poverty. They do not have the political or economic clout to influence the governor or state legislature to anticipate such disasters and prevent them from happening. For the decision makers the health of the people of Flint wasn’t worth the $80 to $100 a day the State of Michigan would have had to pay to add the necessary chemicals to prevent the lead from leaching into the water.

As I pray with this reality, the question that arises in me is stark: “Could this situation have happened in any of the wealthy and predominately white communities in and around Flint?” Is the Flint water crisis another example as to why the question is asked: Do Black Lives Matter?

An icon to contemplate. (Nancy Sylvester)

The icon invites me to reflect on the mindset of those of us who are privileged in our society. When we read about this and other similar situations, we too often try to justify the situation. We hear:

Well, the city was in dire straits. They weren’t able to govern themselves so they had to have a state-appointed emergency manager. What else could he have done as he tried to dig them out of their multi-million-dollar debt? They may be sick, but these people are probably exposed to other sources of lead not just the water. So many of them are unemployed so they aren’t contributing to the city or state economy. We can only bail them out so far.

When faced with a situation that seems horrific, we want to justify our actions. We want to give some rationale to those who made the decisions rather than ask some harder questions, which uncover a worldview that values some people over others and the wants of the few over the needs of the many.

Pray the caption, The Poisoning of an American City. When I prayed this I immediately felt the impact of deliberate human action jeopardizing not only Sincere’s future but also the future of the whole Earth community.

The Flint situation is not isolated. Since the beginning of industrialization, there has been a growing disconnect between human life and nature and our natural resources. We have continued to privilege the needs of business regardless of its toll on our natural resources. We are blind to how polluted rivers, poor air quality, and contaminated soil are intimately connected to the health and wellbeing of human life. We let business take risks that gamble away any responsibility or cost for environmental or human suffering. The decisions to poison Flint were driven by current-year budget projections and the need to make cuts. The result is a staggering bill for generations to come for the health care and social services needed to address the human costs of poisoning people.

In the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis speaks to the dominance of the “technocratic paradigm” within the industrialized world, where the economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potential negative impact. (109) Little concern is given for the costs of production when they effect the desertification of land, harm done to biodiversity, or increased pollution. (195) He calls us to a different way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. (111)

We have entered the season of Lent. It is a time of repentance, of metanoia, of turning around. Perhaps Sincere Smith could accompany us this Lent. Let this photo serve as an icon. Pray with it and see what it reveals to you. May it open our hearts to the conversion we need to transform our current paradigm. When Easter arrives, may we be free enough to look directly into Sincere’s eyes and acknowledge that his future, our future and the future of our planet are all one.

April 26, 2016

Many years ago I toured St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. I can recall climbing up to the top of the cupola and going outside on the balcony from which there is a marvelous view. Of course, I could see the wall that surrounds Vatican City. As I stood there, I reflected on how impenetrable this wall was and couldn’t help making the connection to how difficult it was to communicate with many of our bishops and cardinals about critical issues.

Suddenly something caught my eye. There in the midst of the wall was one single yellow flower pushing itself through the bricks and mortDerekTruninger_Flower (1000x659)ar. It was determined to live and flourish. I thought, “What a sign of hope! If life can get through that wall, then life can flourish in this church.” Hope is certainly tenacious.

These problems form a wall around the students, who too often cannot overcome the obstacles of the educational system which has failed them. But the students honored at the convocation were like the yellow flower pushing through that basilica wall. They succeeded in spite of obstacles — educational, personal, and economic— witnessing the tenacity of hope.

As spring begins, a few of these recipients are worth contemplating. I invite you to “take a long loving look” and feel the rising of hope spreading throughout our cities and our lives. You may also want to pause after each one to get in touch with what each life is saying to you.

Another honoree is majoring in English. In one of her classes she worked with others to create a board game to address the obesity crisis in urban youth. For another project she investigated the ways in which the Google search results of “perfect family” and “perfect wedding” reflect a construction of ideal relationships that is exclusive.

The distinguished student award went to a senior majoring in English and history with a dedicated commitment to social justice. He is a mentor to his peers, as he participates in difficult discussions of racism, classism and sexism. His leadership style makes room for other voices, seeking to include and collaborate, even as he shares his own insights.

A junior majoring in English received three honors, including a scholarship awarded to those for whom it would significantly assist in completing their education. Impressed by his work, his professor wrote, “His essay ‘The Wilde Women in The Importance of Being Earnest,’ underscores the degree to which Victorian England organized itself around powerful beliefs that had little-to-no concrete basis in the material world, yet does so with prose that is as good-humored and sarcastically witty as any Wilde could have hoped for in an audience.”

A junior majoring in business completed a service-learning internship aimed at partnering with local businesses to find sustainable solutions for water usage. She then designed and implemented her own service-learning projects, including a 16-week course to teach life skills to women in a homeless shelter. Her future aspirations include helping women in transition break the cycle of poverty through advocacy and education.

“Taking a long loving look” at these women and men and the others who were honored, I can envision a different political discourse in our country in the decades to come.

The yellow flower at the Vatican signaled for me a need to be patient and wait, for eventually life will burst forth between the cracks in the wall.

The “yellow flower” represented in the lives of the students signal for me that life is emerging in our cities against terrible odds and that things are changing.

Both are signs of the tenacity of hope.

* Special thanks to the Marygrove faculty and administration whose remarks for the various awards provided a major source for this reflection.

Nancy Sylvester, IHM

May 26, 2016

Because of my ministries I have never lived near relatives or my grade school friends as their children grew up. Recently my cousin moved to Lansing, Michigan, not too far from Detroit. One of her many grandchildren was making his first Holy Communion, and I was invited to attend. I accepted, and as I drove on this beautiful Saturday morning I found myself filling up with tears.

I couldn’t stop seeing all of these children and feeling both the joy and the incredible horror and pain that are part of their lives. Yet, as I took a long, loving look at this reality I saw that all of this is part of making one’s First Holy Communion. When we take the Eucharist for the first time we are becoming part of the larger community in a more intimate way. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, we are saying that we are willing to grow into the person God desires us to be. We are setting ourselves on a path toward “wholeness” or holiness which will invite us to embrace the brutal realities that are part of our world and the remnants of such violence that live within us. We are committing ourselves to live in communion with all life; which is to live in solidarity with the oppressed, excluded and exploited, and to help sustain our Earth home.

We actually become a new body, Christ’s body. Listen to the words of Beatrice Bruteau:

“Here is bread, the fundamental food, our body. If I break it, so, and give it to you, saying ‘This is my body, my life, eat it, receive it into yourself and live by it,’ can you perceive how this is really true? . . . What was my body will be your body. . . . Let us do it with the wine, too. . . . Drink it and live! It is a single cup; share it among you. It is a common life among us all. . . . . And do you see what happened? We have come together in our sharing, in our indwelling, in such a way that we form a new being composed of us as its limbs and organs. This is the kingdom of God. . . .”

We are the mystical Body of Christ opening ourselves to the transforming power of love. Our first Holy Communion set us on a path to a radically different way of living everyday life. Given the realities facing us it may seem, as Moe-Lobeda writes, “that communities of faith are called to the seemingly impossible — called to justice-seeking love in a world of structured injustice — then life with God must offer the moral-spiritual power to heed the call.”

As I drove that Saturday morning, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass of the World flashed before me. In that powerful prayer, when Teilhard finds himself in the steppes of Asia without bread, wine or altar, he makes the whole Earth his altar and offers up all the labors and sufferings of this world. Having seen enough violence during World War I, Teilhard gathered into his prayer the “restless multitude, confused or orderly, the immensity of which terrifies us; this ocean of humanity whose slow, monotonous wave-flows trouble the hearts of even of those whose faith is most firm. . . .”

Today I believe we bring all those who perpetrate violence as well as all the victims to our communion table. We stand in communion with them, for them. We believe as Teilhard that what is God’s desire “is nothing less than the growth of the world borne ever onwards in the stream of universal becoming.” In his offering of the bread and wine he sees in its depths “a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out believer and unbeliever alike: ‘Lord, make us one.'”

I suspect it is a bit much to expect 7- and 8-year-olds to receive their first Holy Communion aware of all of this. If I’m honest, I’m not always aware either. It makes me wonder if perhaps every celebration of the Eucharist is actually one’s first Holy Communion. It is the “I” of this present moment who recommits her/his self to the transforming power of Christ, who surrenders to the living God within and offers her/his self to others and the world. Let us pray every day: Behold, this is, we are, the Body of Christ.

Nancy Sylvester, IHM

July 6, 2016

As I write this it is one of those perfect Michigan summer mornings — temperature in high 70s, low humidity, sun shining and the flowers fully blooming in all their rich colors. One of the sisters with whom I live is our gardener, and she has created a most splendid banquet of myriad flowers whose colors were profuse this morning.

I so needed this “chapel” within which to pray. These past weeks have been filled with the violence of the massacre at the gay club in Orlando, Florida; the vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and what that signifies; and International Refugee Day, which confronted us with the reality of over 65 million refugees in 2015.

As I prayed I realized that in fact we are all blind. We really don’t see all that is there.

No wonder contemplation is “taking a long loving look at the real.” We need to create the space in us to see more broadly and deeply than a cursory look provides.

As I try to take that long loving look at what is happening in our world, I realize that what we tell ourselves about what we see — the story or the narrative — out of which we act is crucial. The old story no longer works, and the new story is only emerging. I believe we are living between a story of separation and a story of communion.

President Obama called Omar Mateen’s shooting spree an act of terror and of hate. Mateen was influenced by the propaganda of the Islamic State and a belief that gay, lesbian and transgendered persons are immoral, not like normal persons, with the subtler message that their existence need not be tolerated. As I read the various analyses of what happened with the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, I hear the story of separation from those who have welcomed the “other” and then perceive them as taking away their jobs, their culture, their language and their traditions. On the other side are those who tell a different story, having experienced the richness of the many cultures within England and understand that interdependence is the future. I hear a similar division in talking about the refugee situation. Many people extend compassion toward them and willingly welcome them into their country. Others see them as a threat that should be kept out of their country.

We keep telling a story rooted in a modern worldview. It is a story that tells us we are separate. Each person must look out for him/her self. There is not enough for everyone. There will be winners and losers. It keeps us from seeing beyond our own needs and wants.

View of our garden. (Nancy Sylvester)

We need to tell the other story, a story of communion — of seeing and welcoming the other — of belonging to each other not only to other human persons but to all beings.

As I was reflecting on being blind, I recalled one of my favorite Gospel stories. It is the story of Bartimaeus. He was blind, and when he encountered Jesus, Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he wanted him to do for him. Bartimaeus replied, “That I may see,” and Jesus restored his sight.

That worldview, that consciousness, is needed today. I believe it is deep within us waiting to be awakened. It is what we see when we “take a long loving look at the real.” It is the basis for the story of communion.

It is only softening our eyes and opening our hearts that will free us to embrace the vibrant colors of each person and of our world. When we are no longer blind we will see in new ways. When we see in new ways we will tell the story of communion.

August 22, 2016

There are rare moments when one experiences a fullness of time. A time and place where the previous years’ hopes and desires emerge as an intensified whole deeper and more grounded than one could have hoped. That was my experience of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (LCWR) Assembly this year.

This year’s assembly was a profound experience of the power of communal contemplation and its invitation to deep sharing. The tone and atmosphere of our gathering reflected a stillness of deep silence. It was not empty or passive but held potentiality and a readiness to step into the future. Or at least that is how I felt.

I started thinking about these past years as LCWR members spoke to me about the Engaging Impasse Circles and my 2000 LCWR presidential address. I was curious to recall that time as it was another moment in which LCWR experienced quite painfully the consequence of ecclesial authority. The years 1999 and 2000 brought us into heightened conflict among ourselves over a notification issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith regarding the ministry of Jeannine Gramick and Bob Nugent with gay and lesbian Catholics.

Although the notification was directed to the respective congregational leaders and as such was an internal issue, LCWR entered into the conversation primarily because the 1999 assembly had passed a special resolution. It said: “After research and reflection, the LCWR presidency and members will initiate conversations with official leaders at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church to address a pattern in the exercise of ecclesiastical authority experienced as a source of suffering and division by many within the Catholic community.”

When the notification became public, it generated lots of responses by religious to the Vatican supporting the two individual religious. Seeing the notification as an example of this pattern of authority, some LCWR members submitted a resolution for the 2000 assembly that had the potential of dividing the membership.

Interestingly we had planned a contemplative process for this Assembly. A few years earlier we had committed ourselves to integrate contemplation and action on behalf of our work for social justice. Now our conference goals were to address the transformation of religious life. We were ready to deepen our commitment to contemplation on behalf of justice within the church.

It was within this context that I prepared my address. It was an affirmation of religious life as it had evolved since Vatican II as well as an acknowledgment that women religious were at an impasse with many in the hierarchy. What was clear to me from our visit to the Vatican offices in spring of 2000 was that all the ways that we knew how to respond to what we perceived as an injustice did not work. We had to respond in new ways. We needed to respond from our deepest core. Inspired by Constance FitzGerald’s work, I knew that only contemplation would allow us to imagine new ways rooted in love. “And, that we must do so individually and together. We need to stay in contemplation long enough and then to see with our hearts how we can respond.”

That same desire to stay with the impasse not only with the church but with each other as we engaged around the difficult issue facing us as an assembly was strongly affirmed. At the end of the assembly one of the members from the floor proposed that we make a commitment to contemplation as a way of implementing the 1999 resolution. It was overwhelmingly adopted, and LCWR leadership organized a year of contemplation and fasting. Members began a rolling fast where women religious in various cities took a day and hosted an hour of contemplation inviting bishops, priests, religious and other laity to come together in a day of contemplation and fasting for the healing of broken relationships in our church and our world.

I began my address singing, “Everything before us, brought us to this moment standing on the threshold of a brand new day.” I felt then that 2000 only happened because of all that went before it. The year 2000 was an intensified moment in time for the conference, but it was not the fullness of time. The intervening years brought greater pain and suffering. We experienced impasse profoundly with the Vatican investigation and the doctrinal assessment.

I sense that this year’s assembly brings us to another new moment. Like particle/wave no longer either/or but both/and, women religious embraced contemplation and action. It is the ground of our being. We don’t have to second guess it anymore. Of course, for many, one has always flowed from the other, but I sense that after Vatican II some of us believed our actions were more effective than our prayer. Now we believe in the power of communal contemplation and strive for dialogue to understand our differences.

It is out of that place of fullness that I believe we must move forward. Contemplation invites a transformation of consciousness which in turn transforms how we live and act. The world is hungry for a new way of being that reflects more profoundly Gospel values. Women religious are hungry to live the rest of our lives full of passion worthy of one’s original vocation.

I sense so strongly that women religious are ready to embrace the future with all the joy and suffering it holds from this contemplative space with a renewed heart and a new zeal for transformation. As we move into the future we join our energy with so many others who believe in the transformation of our world. Indeed, we do not do this alone. Let us remember . . .

“Everything Before Us Brought Us to this Moment Standing on the Threshold of a Brand New Day.”

August 29, 2016

Earlier I wrote about needing to tell a new story, a new narrative — one of communion and not separation. Yet as I listen to the news I feel as though I don’t want to be in communion with some people. I want to be separate from them. I want to scream how can you do that? How can you believe that?

Similar headlines are repeated daily generating increasing toxicity within me. What can I do so as not to get sick? How can I foster a sense of communion with all peoples even when their behavior is repugnant? As I prayed I recalled a practice that I feel might be helpful. It is Tonglen.

Tonglen is counter-intuitive. Although the resistance to what is painful may make us feel justified and righteous it is actually making us rigid. It closes up our hearts. When we relax and soften our hearts, we discover the gift of compassion for ourselves and others.

In Tonglen you begin by being very aware of the situation or the person who is causing you pain. With your in-breath you breathe in the feeling of that pain. Chodron encourages you to be very concrete. Is your feeling one of a heavy weight coming down upon your shoulders? Or a red-hot searing iron being placed on your heart? You try to feel it and picture it. You allow the painful situation to touch you. But you cannot stop there for you must release such negative energy, so the second part of the practice is key.

You imagine what gift that person or that situation is in need of and you breathe that out. Again, try to be very concrete. If the gift needed is a respect for women what does that feel and look like? Might it be an image of people dancing in a circle? If it is for civility and truth telling, could it be the image of two or three people talking, exchanging ideas and expressing a willingness to say I’m wrong and to change? Picture it and feel it. Then with your out-breath release it for the person or situation you’ve chosen.

I feel this practice helps me stay grounded in the reality that we are all connected. It frees me to be bolder in my response — to be clearer about why what is happening is unjust. It enhances my capacity to understand why it is occurring given our different developmental stages of consciousness. It helps me not to ignore my feelings or react to them in less than constructive ways; rather, it invites me to face into them and convert negativity into life-giving energy.

I offer this to you in the heat of the political debates. I invite you to try it as part of your prayer. Perhaps it will give you some insights as to how to move beyond the divide of separation and imagine new ways of acting on behalf of justice and living out of a narrative of communion.

When we see in new ways we will tell the story of communion.

We decided that each of us would commit to a period of contemplative prayer and that we would invite as many people as we could to join us. The time, day and duration was to be determined by each of us, but knowing that we were virtually together engaged in this action made it significant. The focus became clear. We would intentionally envision healing our divisions as a country, making choices for the common good, and respecting each other so as to engage in civil discourse. We also said that we would continue this action after the election for a period of time.

In the wake of the elections, I feel the need to be grounded ever more deeply in contemplation so I can move forward in new ways into the space that holds the tensions, contradictions and challenges that are before us as families, as congregations, as a nation, as Christians, as Earth community.

This is not easy. The complexity is great. There are so many levels from which “to take a long loving look at the real.” And every time I begin to write, I realize how conflicted and contradictory I feel. All my presentations discuss the need to see the “other” as a revelation of God; to be curious about those positions different from mine; to see in our differences the potential for creative growth. I find myself doing this on a personal level as I try to understand why someone I know and worked with voted for Donald Trump. Or why a few of our sisters supported him. This is the disposition of my heart as I ponder the many analyses of the election and what needs and fears motivated both sides.

On the political level, however, I find a resistance to withholding judgment on what the new administration may look like and do. I can’t suspend my knowledge of what I know about President-elect Trump both from my reading about him and my experience of him during the campaign. Having been in Washington when Rep. Newt Gingrich was in office and when John Bolton was United Nations ambassador, I know what they stood for and what policies they advocated. It seems as if the other names being floated for cabinet positions or White House staff are of a similar ilk. So I appreciate the immediate uproar about appointing Steve Bannon as chief strategist and trying to stop something before it is irreversible. I can feel the urge to act now . . . we can’t wait.

Yet I also know that if I or we keep seeing everything President-elect Trump does as an extension of who he was during the campaign, how can he change a position? How does he get the space to come to some new realizations without needing to defend himself all the time? Is it possible to extend trust and stay alert to suspect behavior that may violate the values of our Constitution and the values of the Gospel?

I wish I had an answer, but what I do have is an image. Since the election, an image that Cynthia Bourgeault used in one of her courses from Spirituality and Practice* keeps emerging in my mind. It is that of a “Cosmic Sentry,” an archetypal image. Taking some liberty with her reflection, I find myself reflecting on these insights, words and phrases:

A Cosmic Sentry is one who offers intercessory prayer. His or her entire body becomes a lightning rod for the energy of divine compassion. Human yearning and divine blessing ebb and flow wordlessly across this sacred meeting ground in deep and purifying exchange. The planet has always been held in its orbit by those solitary sentries who take on this great work. His or her work casts a circle of protection around our fragile and beleaguered planet.

What captures my imagination is seeing us not as solitary sentries but communities of sentries who in our contemplative prayer allow ourselves to become lightning rods for the energy of divine compassion. As we move from contemplative prayer to reflecting on the realities facing us we will be invited to engage with others out of a deep empathy. We will cast a circle of protection which embodies the values of love, hope, equality, inclusivity, justice, sustainability, peace and right relationships. We will be invited to enter deep conversations with each other to see how to move forward in ways that address the common good while addressing our diverse needs.

Another aspect to being a sentry is to signify when danger is near. As sentries, we never sleep! Contemplation awakens us to a heightened reality. It calls us to stay awake to what is. I imagine as communities of sentries we stand alert ready to signal when danger is sensed both far away and immediate. It is a wake-up call to us all who fall asleep to the complexity of our times and the changing reality. I imagine women religious and others like us alerting each other to what we sense needs to be challenged or needs to be supported. Rooted in Gospel values we stand on firm ground and speak out of our moral authority. We act out of the energy of divine compassion as we write, educate, engage in non-violent protest.

I wonder if we can become “communities of cosmic sentries.” What might it look like? Sharing our commitment to contemplative prayer and the actions it promotes among us on the more personal level through social media? Letting each other know what “dangers” we sense and how we might respond?

I can’t help thinking about how our motherhouse is in an area where the majority of voters chose Mr. Trump. I wonder how many other motherhouses are in small towns and rural areas where the greatest anger and hurt was felt. What if, each time an alert is sounded, we reflect on how to communicate our concern and values to this larger population of which we are a part? We might write letters to local newspapers or hold a get together of some sort to explore what we see happening. We might consistently visit our elected representatives to alert them of the danger we see.

A sentry is also defined as a guard standing at a point of passage, as a gate. Perhaps we can be the gate which we open wide so as to freely move between worldviews and beliefs but which we may quickly close when hatred and violence try to gain the upper hand.

I’d like to end with some of Cynthia’s words: “At whatever level you sense these things in yourself, let yourself sink fully today — even if only as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ — into the possibility that this archetypal hope is real. . . . Life is not random or uncared for. Somehow we are carried. Something intends to flow onward, in great ebb-and-flow patterns, until love comes to fullness in every human heart.”

I offer this image to you for your reflection. If you feel there is some energy to see how we can keep connected with each other as communities of cosmic sentries, please let me know. You can email me at nsylvester@aol.com — and, please, do check the “thanks” button at the bottom of this page.

* “A Simple Immediacy” by Cynthia Bourgeault: Day 23: Cosmic Sentry, Spirituality and Practice at spiritualityandpractice.com

Editor’s note: Nancy Sylvester’s October Contemplate This reflection, Becoming a civil and respectful democracy again, was published at NCRonline.org.

Get your daily dose of inspiration with this addition to Visual Life.

January 6, 2017

Nancy Sylvester, IHM

Global Sisters Report

Celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation awakens in me profound hope. It recalls that Divine Presence is with us and in us. That our world is good and holy. It speaks to me that we have within us the capacity to open our arms wide to embrace our entire Earth community as our sisters and brothers and that we are all in this evolutionary journey together.

I needed to be reminded of that as 2016 ended with a keen awareness of our political and religious differences. As I continue to struggle with how to move forward into this time of healing and understanding each other, I am reminded of the image I used in my last reflection, that of communities of cosmic sentries.

I picture us standing with arms outstretched bracing to be lightning rods for Divine Compassion. Allowing the energy of human yearning and divine blessing to ebb and flow through our bodies in a deep and purifying exchange. For me it is at once inviting and scary. I wonder: Can I do this?

I invite you to join me in taking a contemplative gaze on these realities. To read them as seeing sisters and brothers who desire similar things, who need access to the same resources, and who suffer from pain and stress that knows no boundaries. To allow yourself to let them enter you and teach you what you need to experience. I have chosen just three struggles: Aleppo, the ongoing Flint, Michigan, water crisis and infants addicted to opioids. I know they are a just a microcosm of all that is going on in our world, and so you may want to continue your reflection with other struggles we are facing.

Aleppo

Taken from an AP article by Sarah El Deeb that appeared in the Detroit Free Press (December 18, 2016)

Death in Aleppo was personal for Modar Sheikho. He lost his sister to government bombing early in the revolt. His brother was killed last month. And as they looked for a place to bury him, another air strike killed his father. Still, Sheikho held out in the besieged city as long as he could. When he finally was forced to evacuate Friday, he made a video bidding farewell to the city. ‘We were asking for our freedom. This is what we get,’ he said against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and thousands of people waiting for buses to take them away from Aleppo. But even in his first hours of exile, the 28 year-old nurse longed to return. ‘My soul is torn out more with each step away from Aleppo.’

It is almost the three-year anniversary of the start of Flint’s water crisis and many people still need to use cases of bottled water to cook with, bathe in and drink. Irresponsible and immoral state and local policies are to blame. (See my GSR column from February 15, 2016, for an explanation of this situation.)

Listen to their voices today as excerpted from an essay by Ryan Garza in the Detroit Free Press (December 18, 2016):

Ivory Gipson: “When we go get water, it takes a whole day. That whole day, we can’t do anything else. We have to just get water for that day.”

Plato Banks: “Flint has had hard times before, but this crisis is one of the worst. . . . They kept lying about it, saying the water was safe to drink, and it come to find out the water wasn’t safe to drink. . . . Why did they have to lie about it? Just go ahead and say, ‘OK, we knew the water was bad, and we’re going to correct it.'”

Lisa Gaines: “If I didn’t own this house, I would take off.” Gaines, who has developed a skin rash, is responsible for her mother, who is bedridden, and her brother, who is severely sick. “What I’m hoping is that my mother and brother can leave here. I do not want them dying in here due to this water. But I think they will, because they are so sick.”

Melissa Mays: “Everyone says, ‘Why don’t you just move?’ I’ve actually been called a horrible mother because we’re still here. Well, poisoned water does not increase the resale value of a house.”

Opioids and infants

More babies of mothers addicted to opioids are being born dependent on the drugs themselves, driven by a sharp surge in rural areas of the country.

The number of cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and maternal opioid use increased five-fold in the United States between 2000 and 2012, according to a research letter in JAMA Pediatrics written by scientists from five leading pediatric hospitals in the U.S.

Ten years ago, the condition was predominantly found in disadvantaged communities, often in urban settings and linked to illicit drug use, said Dr. Terrie Inder, chair of pediatric newborn medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Now, it’s touching women and newborns from all economic brackets and geographic areas.

‘The babies, they are really unsettled, they really suffer, just like adults do when they withdraw from narcotics. The babies are very irritable and sometimes have high heart rates, sweating, flushing, diarrhea. They cry a lot. Often they need someone to really hold and cuddle and nurture them and support them,’ Inder said.

______

Taking a contemplative gaze, I see people longing for freedom for themselves and for their homeland no matter what the cost; the desire of persons to have access to safe drinking water and the painful results of not having policies that protect that right, and the frightening experience of having your newborn addicted to opioids, an experience that can forge bonds across class and geography to look for solutions. Embracing this energy is helping me become a lightning rod for compassion.

My hope is knowing that humanity is not left alone to drift toward greater divisions, selfishness and violence. In the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus opened himself to the Divine Presence dwelling within and lived in ways that challenged the values of his own time. Jesus told his followers to preach the “good news” and prayed that the vision of the “kingdom” would come on Earth just as it is in heaven. In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are reminded that God dwells with and within us. Perhaps, Meister Eckhart, a Dominican mystic, says it best: “We are all meant to be mothers of God . . . for God is always needing to be born.”

As President Donald Trump begins to roll out in rapid fire the many executive orders seeking to overturn decisions not only of the Obama Administration but programs and policies that have been in place for decades, I find myself seeking to understand the larger picture. Taking a long loving look at all that is going on is not easy. I know I have more to ponder, and this has made a focus for this reflection difficult.

In Tucson, I attended a session of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom School, which had as its focus the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Cynthia, together with Ilia Delio, explored the thought of this incredible scientist priest, whose insights regarding evolution have influenced the work of all who reflect on the origins of our universe with the eyes of faith. About 80 of us gathered to deepen our understanding and to take hope in a man who wrote of how we as the human species are evolving toward greater love and compassion — and who never gave up hope.

The border fence at Agua Prieta, Sonora Mexico, is painted on the Mexican side. (Nancy Sylvester)

Children play in Agua Prieta, Sonora Mexico, a border town across from Douglas, Arizona, where The Blessed Nuno Society supports an orphanage and other ministries. (Nancy Sylvester)

We visited the orphanage and a free day care center. We distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste to students at three different schools. The female administrator has worked more than 24 years in this town and knew what was needed where. A man who belonged to the organization accompanied us on our trip. He had just come into town and wanted to visit. I was struck that these acts of charity were serving as a way to bring middle-class U.S. citizens across the border, inviting them to see those on the other side with love and respect.

Susan Hillman deAlban, a nurse who works the night shift in a hospital in Tucson, also accompanied us to the border. She had spent years working in Mindo, Ecuador, and had put together a book of poems (My Little Angels) written by students. I found in these poems a lesson about how even in the midst of suffering there is hope.

Here is one poem by “MP:

Today my mind is empty of beautiful memories,
It’s full of difficult moments that are hard to talk about.
I just want to think about what someone told me today —
That God, your God, is here in every person’s heart,
That He doesn’t abandon me and He won’t leave my side.
I want to keep in mind that my God will never betray me.
No matter what I do, He always accompanies me in spite of how my attitude is all day.
He gets me up in the morning with a smile.
Even with all that sadness I thank You, my God, for being so good to me and loving me
In spite of each of my mistakes.
Tonight, I’ll sleep well knowing that tomorrow Your smile will fill my heart, and as I fall asleep
I’ll softly whisper Thank You, my God.

As a cosmic sentry, when you become a lightning rod for divine compassion you draw down the energy and send it around the planet. How fitting it was that on the last day of my trip, as I was enjoying the Saguaro National Forest East, a double rainbow appeared as vibrant and as complete as I have ever seen. It delighted me and spoke to me of a future that is waiting to appear.

A double rainbow of encouragement in Saguaro National Forest East. (Nancy Sylvester)

I invite you to find those who are the “lightning rods” for you in your life. The people whom you encounter and will help you make sense of where we are going as a nation and how we need to respond.

To read Nancy Sylvester’s entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

In one of the post-Resurrection accounts in the Scripture (John 21) some of the disciples went fishing with Peter. All night they caught nothing. Then at daybreak, Jesus — who was standing on the shore, though none of the disciples recognized him — asked if they had caught anything. They answered that they had caught nothing. Jesus then told them to cast their net off the other side. When they did that, they caught so many fish that they could hardly haul the net in.

That image of these seasoned fishermen who knew where and how to fish, taking their net after a night of fishing and turning to the other side to cast it again wouldn’t leave me.

I wondered in how many situations in my life do I cast a net and, through the night and through the years, continue to wait for the “catch” in the same place. I’m becoming aware that I feel as if I have been waiting for “public policies rooted in social justice values” in some old tried and true political waters. And my net is still empty.

I reflect on congregations of women religious who are tirelessly casting out nets into the same waters for new vocations. We faithfully do it over and over and are getting worn out and exasperated wondering why no one joins us. The net continues to be empty.

Yet, the disciples heard a question — Did you catch anything? They responded honestly: Not a thing. Then an invitation — Cast your net to the other side.

How can I, can we, hear the questions that need to be answered honestly and then have the courage and take the risk to respond to the invitation to do what we never thought of or thought possible?

For me, this is where contemplation comes in — individual and communal. Contemplation opens us to God’s presence in us. It helps to clear our busy mind, which knows what to do and why to keep doing it. It awakens in us a space, a fullness which invites us to see differently, to hear differently. Because it is a non-discursive form of prayer, it touches our gut center of knowing, and it strengthens our capacity to respond in new ways to old situations. It awakens us to what is already there but which we have not been able to see. It invites us to experience the unconditional love of God.

I believe a contemplative practice readies us to hear the key questions and to respond not defensively but honestly, opening our own heart to conversion. It prepares us to hear an invitation that might shatter all our old preconceived categories or ways of thinking of things. Rooted in our Divine self, in our Christ self, we begin to free ourselves from our needs for security, control and power. Needs that often keep us stuck in one place believing that this is the way forward.

The disciples needed each other to bring their net across the boat and cast it to the other side. We, too, need each other to share that contemplative space so that we might together discern the questions, the invitations and new possibilities. Hauling in the net of old expectations, assumptions and behaviors is arduous and takes all our strength. Honestly responding in our own time to the question Jesus asked, “Did you catch anything?” and casting the net to the other side — freed of our needs for power, security and control but filled with our hopes and love — takes the agility and energy of the whole.

Grief and gratitude, life’s strong currents

Grief and gratitude are two strong currents in our lives, and when they flow together it creates a river of healing.

Right after Mother’s Day, I received shocking news. My sister, Ginny, my only sibling, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Only 71 years old; this seemed unbelievable. Grief seeped through me. At first I was numb. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was in the middle of a chapter committee meeting in Monroe, Michigan, and she had been flown to a hospital in Denver from her little town of Antonito, Colorado. I found myself just walking by the river that flows through Monroe incapable of doing anything but crying. At first, I thought I would just stay in Monroe and go back to my home in Detroit in the morning. It was as if a part of me disassociated with what I had just learned. Then after some more tears and the comfort of the committee members, I “woke” up and drove home that night making reservations to fly to Denver in the morning.

Once that decision was made I called our community’s president, and she assured me I could bring Ginny to our health care facility in Monroe. She put into motion all that was needed to make that happen. The social worker at the hospital worked with the staff in Monroe to get everything into place so that we could fly there the coming Saturday.

I then began receiving calls from the three women from Antonito who had taken Ginny to the emergency room at the county hospital. They had stayed with her the whole day waiting for her to be seen. These women have been faithful companions with me on this journey as they helped to find her bills, mail, etc. that I needed to obtain the necessary information to take care of her finances and other legal matters. A neighbor from Antonito took care of feeding her dog and watching over her house — helping in numerous ways.

The sorrow, loss and grief flowed, but I felt as if it was being encompassed and held by a deep gratefulness. I began to “take a long loving look” and saw the gift in how things happened as other possibilities would have been so much more difficult to handle. At first I felt torn between my feelings — grief or gratitude — which one should I spend time with? Am I cheating my sister if I don’t stay with grief? Am I cheating those who assisted if I don’t stay with gratitude? But as I held them, I saw they were not opposites competing for my heart but one flowing current in my life offering healing at this difficult moment.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that as this was happening in my life, major events happened in our country that brought grief to many of us. President Donald Trump in his first overseas trip treated our European allies with arrogance and a punitive message, suggesting that the strong NATO alliance was not necessarily a priority of his, and within days he made the decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

His positions on both were not factually based; he offered for both rationale that were misleading and, in some cases, just plain wrong. Many people I know used the words “heart breaking” and “grieving” to describe how they were feeling. It seemed as if democracy and the future of our planet were both diagnosed as dying.

Then the response came pouring in. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that even if they couldn’t rely on the United States, the NATO alliance would hold strong. David Brooks in a June 2 New York Times editorial captured the worldview of Mr. Trump and his advisors as one that sees life as a competitive struggle for gain, with selfishness as the sole driver of human affairs. He then reminded us that there are “other drivers that motivate human action — solidarity, love and moral fulfillment. People are wired to cooperate. … They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples.”

In the face of pulling out of the Paris accord, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Politico reported the incredible response from business leaders, university presidents and mayors around the county making commitments to comply with the U.S. targets and contribute to the Paris fund. It was reported that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is donating $15 million to the Green Climate Fund. The Vatican gave a clear response, seeing the Trump’s decision as “a disaster”.

The experience of grief — both personal and political — opened my eyes to see anew. It awakened me to the currents of selflessness, generosity, solidarity, neighborliness, compassion and love that are often there but held at a distance. I know that my contemplative practice enabled my vision to widen and my heart to become more open.

Many of us face a time in which we are experiencing grief in many forms. My prayer is that we cultivate a contemplative look at the suffering we experience, and see with fresh eyes the current of gratitude flowing through us moving us toward the river of healing.

Editor’s note: Nancy’s sister, Virginia, died peacefully in her sleep at around 9 a.m. June 28, 2017.

If you can’t sit, consider swimming

(Photo by Jesper Stechmann on Unsplash)

Recently, Mary Hunt, a good friend and co-director with Diann Neu of WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual), emailed me. Mary is very committed to contemplation and asked me about swimming as a type of contemplative practice similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking mediation. The thought stayed with me, and although I can’t get to a pool as often as I used to, I decided to go for a swim and experience its contemplative qualities.

As I began to prepare for a contemplative swim, I recalled the work of Masaru Emoto in The Hidden Messages in Water and thought he might provide additional insights.

I began to think about how important it is to make a shift of consciousness, from seeing only one’s own tribe, religion or race as connected to you to the more planetary view of the “connectedness” of all beings. This kind of shift in consciousness that sees things in new ways is certainly a fruit of contemplative practice. Over time, as we engage in contemplation, our consciousness begins to shift, to evolve to more complex stages. We begin to see things differently. We come to understand that we are more connected as a people and as a planet. Reflection on water as an essential part of who we are and the medium in which we do contemplative swimming seemed promising.

Emoto notes that water has to keep moving to stay pure; if it becomes trapped, it stagnates or dies. It must be circulated constantly. He states, “When you are living a full and enjoyable life, you feel better physically, and when your life is filled with struggles and sorrow, your body knows it. So when your emotions flow throughout your body, you feel a sense of joy and you move towards physical health. Moving, changing, flowing — this is what life is all about.”

Emoto has worked in homeopathy and with water crystals. He states that his life has been changed by the realization that water has the ability to copy and memorize information. He writes, “If we were capable of reading the information contained in the memory of water, we would read a story of epic proportions. To understand water is to understand the cosmos, the marvels of nature, and life itself.”

I couldn’t help thinking about how water can lead us to this more mystical understanding of the universe and our place in it. How we too hold the memory of that which went before us. We begin to see our unique place in evolutionary time.

It was in his studies on the formation of water crystals where I found an invitation to action. Emoto’s work on photographing water crystals confirmed the amazing reality that water crystals can be well-formed or deformed based on the vibrations of the music and words to which they are exposed. After exposing distilled water to classical music, the crystals were well formed with distinct characteristics — delicate, elegant, lovely detail. When exposed to violent heavy metal music, the crystals were fragmented and malformed.

The experiment continued with writing words like “thank you,” “let’s do it,” “fool,” and “do it” on pieces of paper and wrapping them around the bottles of water with the words facing in. The results showed that the water crystals exposed to the positive words were beautifully formed, while those exposed to the negative phrases were once again malformed and fragmented.

Different vibrations can positively or negatively affect the formation of the crystals. With Earth and our bodies composed of so much water, the positive or negative vibrations of our everyday language can have a profound effect on how we feel and on our larger reality. Reflect on the negative rhetoric of our political discourse through the primary season to the present. See how slurs, fake news, and adolescent videos tweeted by the president (showing him beating up the news media) make you feel. Can you sense the water crystals of your body fragmenting?

Then it was time to go swimming.

Aware of water’s profound qualities, I found that entering the water for a swim was like entering a sacred space. The water was cool and clear, refreshing me instantly. Not being a great swimmer, I gave thanks for having my own lane. Full of gratitude, I set my intention to be open to the workings of the divine within me and surrendered to the water.

There is great trust in swimming. You lean into the water and expect it to embrace and hold you. Even if you’ve been swimming for years, you may still take a lap or two to find your stride. As you lean into the water, your arms and legs begin a flowing movement. One arm moves forward out of the water while the other is moving down, pushing the water backward. You move your head and breathe while your legs continue to kick. The movement is rhythmical and constant. You feel your muscles working and the water caressing your body. There is no rational thought as the energy flows through you. You are there alone in the womb of our beginnings, surrendering to the divine working within you.

Happy contemplative swimming!

In the mid-’80s Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death, which explored how media affects public discourse. He made the observation that before the telegraph, people found out about tragedies, fires or illness by word of mouth. They felt empowered because they were responding to local situations. They could express their compassion concretely and immediately.

Too little “world” news is ever shown on our nightly world news programs. Few of us are aware of the potential of famine caused by shortages of food and potable water in SomaliaSouth SudanNigeria and Yemen.

I think Postman was right. In the face of such knowledge where does our compassion find expression? How can I feel that I am making a difference? How do I resist justifying my inactivity as compassion fatigue?

As I try to envision what I would take from my house if I faced evacuation, I see people in villages being evacuated and taken to refugee camps with only what they can carry on their backs. I try to imagine what would it be like not to have electricity for weeks — or months, as people in Puerto Rico now face. I see women in Africa coping with less and less food and water, with no end in sight.

Those of us who are women religious are in a unique positon to respond. We have sisters in many if not most of the countries of our world. They are in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, as well as Iraq, South Korea, Venezuela and other countries worldwide. They live in Florida and Texas. They are not strangers. They, and the people with whom they work, are our neighbors.

We are the local link to share with those with whom we minister what is happening, and how women religious are collaborating with other groups to address some of the problems in creative ways. We could offer places for people to tell their stories, as Global Sisters Report does so well. We might write editorials linking the suffering of those living outside our borders with what is happening here. We could provide groups to whom people could contribute as they can.

Might these recent catastrophes sensitize us here in the United States? If so, perhaps when we hear that we are cutting the money we send to the United Nations, or that our president threatens to destroy North Korea, or that our country may pull out of the Iran agreement as it did with the climate change agreement, we will stop and realize that these decisions affect millions of individual people and our Earth home. Will it help us feel more empowered when we know that global is local, and we can put faces on these places? Will it help us see our interconnection?

For my Jubilee, a friend gave me a Hubble photograph with a quote from the Carmel of Reno. It said, “What we do with our hearts affects the entire Universe.” Contemplation fosters knowing and seeing with our hearts. There is no room for compassion fatigue. In addition to the concrete actions we may engage in, there is the action of how we hold the suffering of our world; how we take a long, loving look at what is facing us and our Earth home; and how we embrace it in the spirit of healing. What we do with our hearts does indeed affect the entire Universe.

[Nancy Sylvester founded the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue and has served as its director since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]