Monday, June 30, 2014

Birthday Blog: Begin Again

“Begin again.”

My orchid saying, "Happy birthday!  Celebrate life!"
These two little words bursting with Buddhist wisdom popped into my mind this morning as I awakened to my 28th birthday.   When I came downstairs, I saw that a third blossom had opened on my recently dormant orchid.  A birthday is always a good reminder of life’s goodness and generative possibility!  As I look back over the last year and give thanks, I am also grateful for the way life always lets us start over, reinvent, recreate.  I am humbled by God’s refreshing love and excited by the new being born in and around me.  I suppose the phrase is also appropriate encouragement for a negligent blogger.  Today I "begin again" with high hopes for more consistency next year in this Diary of a Sister-in-Training! J

Happy Novices after
completing our Canonical Novitiate
More than my birthday, this week also marks a new beginning on my journey of religious life.  Andrea and I finished our canonical novitiate last Friday and are now onto year two.  Just as a refresher, the canonical novitiate is a year-long process that all religious experience in their formation.  It is a time focused on solitude and prayer and becoming deeply rooted in God’s love.  Over the last year, we have had classes three days a week in Spirituality, Theology, Scripture, Church History, Sisters of Charity History, and much more.  On Tuesdays, we each served at a ministry site, and Fridays were set aside as our Sabbath Day – a time for processing, relaxation, and prayer.  We’ve also spent time visiting Sisters at the Motherhouse, participating in congregational events, and cultivating intentional community here at our home, Bayley House.

Since I last wrote in March, we’ve followed the above rhythm with just a few additions.  In May, we participated in the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon with other religious in the name of Peace, Justice, and Vocations.  Later in the month, we went on a week-long silent retreat at Milford Jesuit Spiritual Center.  On Memorial Day, we participated in a Choral Reading about the Sisters of Charity who nursed in the Civil War.  Throughout June, we finished up with several evaluations that encouraged us to reflect on where God has led us throughout the canonical year. 

Andrea and myself go back to the 1860's with some of the
other participants in the Civil War Commemoration Service
Sisters and future Sisters at the
Flying Pig Marathon, May 2014
It was a year filled to the brim with wondrous learning experiences and people who shared their gifts and love with us.  It was also tough.  The time and space spent in prayer lends itself to much introspection and reflection, and lots of “stuff” quite naturally can arise.  Externally, I have been fed by the wisdom and love of my Sisters.  Internally, it’s been an intense journey, but one that has taught me more about God’s incomprehensible love.

I do feel ready to begin again!  We are a few days into the second year of Novitiate, called the Apostolic Novitiate, which will also happen in Cincinnati.  Not all congregations have a second year; it isn’t required as the canonical year is.  Our congregation has found it to be a helpful time of discovery and transition into full-time ministry.  As you probably guessed, the word "Apostle" comes from the idea of being sent, so the apostolic year is more focused on being out in the world.  The year will center upon ministry and discovering further how God calls us to serve as Sisters of Charity.  We’ll also still have a Sabbath Day to continue integrating the gifts of contemplation and action.  If God keeps the call comin', we’ll make first vows next summer, so we will also spend intentional time in vow preparation throughout the apostolic year.

God has stirred up some exciting opportunities in ministry for next year!  I’ll be working as an intern at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office.  Each year, the Office offers this position in conjunction with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ anti-poverty campaign.  I’ll be helping to administer CCHD grants, supporting local grassroots groups making change in their communities, educating about Catholic Social Teaching in parishes, working for immigration reform and care for creation, and perhaps other things!  I’ll also be writing a once a month for the Global Sisters Report, a project of the National Catholic Reporter.  Three other young Sisters and myself make up the Horizons column, a place for newer religious women to share their thoughts, reflections, and experiences.  You can read my first two (and future) columns here.

When Dan and Patty Kemme first held me in their arms on June 30, 1986, they could never have predicted that I would be here on my 28th birthday!  This gift of life is full of God’s surprises, and all of them way better than we could’ve conjured up on our own.

Bayley House with Novice Director during the last
night of Canonical Novitiate: Sisters Andrea, Donna, Tracy, Nancy,
Maureen, Terry, and Carol
During the closing of the canonical novitiate last Thursday night, we prayed with a reading that was included in the Opening of Novitiate Ceremony one year ago:   For this reason I bow my knees before the Creator,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that God would grant you, according to the riches of God’s glory, to be strengthened with power through the Spirit in the inner self,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3: 14-19)

 As I embark on a new year of life and a new step toward becoming a vowed Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, I am reminded that all of life is really a love story, leading each of us more profoundly to the heart of God.  It is God’s love that brings us into being, that sustains us, that calls us forward.  It is God’s love that wakes us up each morning with opportunities for new growth and new birth.  A fellow Sister gave me a card this morning that reads, “Today is the beginning of the best part of your life.”  True dat, Sister.  This day and every day, God, give me the grace to “Begin again!”

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sister: Who, me? Yes, you!

It’s a funny and wonderful thing, being young and being “Sister” in today’s world.  Take this scenario for example.

“What do you mean, honey?  You work for the Sisters of Charity?” the receptionist asked.

She looked at me with questioning eyes, and I could sense both of us growing impatient.  I had just moved back to Cincinnati and needed to find a new doctor’s office.  Here I was, trying to register at the nearby practice and finding it more complicated than expected.  The confusion started when I handed the receptionist my insurance card and told her that the policy is under the Sisters of Charity.

The first incredulous look. “The Sisters of Charity?”

“Yes…I’m in the process of becoming a Sister.  I live right up that hill.”

“Wait a second.  Are you employed by the Sisters of Charity?  Or are you a student at the College?  What are you telling me here?”

“Well, no, I’m definitely not a student at the College.  And I’m not technically employed by the Sisters…” (I rolled my eyes inside.  My feelings in a hashtag = #youngsisterproblems).  “I’m here because I’m in formation to become a Sister.  Like, I am going to be a Sister of Charity.”

"You don't look like a Sister!"
Disclaimer: Although the expression is
similar, this is NOT the actual doctor's office
“Hmm…we have lots of Sisters that come in here, and they don’t look like you!”  She squinted.  That’s when she asked again if I meant that I worked there.  I agreed to let her hold onto the card and “check on it” while I filled out the paperwork.

I thought to myself in disbelief – Do you have a history of young women coming in here and claiming to be nuns?!  Honestly!

Of course, when she checked it out, she discovered that I was not a Sister-impostor (nunpostor? J).  This time, she smiled at me with a kind eyes and a fascinated grin.  “Glad to have you with us, Sister!”

I winced a little bit, my feelings shifting from aggravation to discomfort.  I felt this urge to have my identity understood and well-received, but I was so not used to hearing the title.  Maybe I was confused about who I was, too.

 It was just a few weeks since I went from being Tracy to “Sister Tracy.” Andrea and I won’t make our first vows until summer 2015, but the title change coincides with the beginning of Novitiate.  In the months leading up to the ceremony, I felt joyful anticipation for what the new prefix would represent.  It seemed to express well the serious step I was taking, and I was ready!

Once it happened, it seemed surreal.  The Sisters around the Motherhouse enjoyed playfully addressing us with our new titles that week.  It was a thrill and at the same time quite strange. From one day to the next, this identity that I felt burgeoning within over time was articulated quite decidedly in the reality of 6 letters.  Surely an automatic transformation didn’t accompany the momentary change that allows me to put “S.” before my name.  “Sister Tracy?” I said to myself sometimes, swishing it around in my mouth to see how it felt. 

It's sort of like how that flashy red shirt looks great on the rack but feels a little different once you're staring at it in the mirror on your body.  I didn’t expect all of the questions that arose in me along with becoming “Sister.”  What does the word bring with it?  What implications does it have on my sense of identity?  What does it mean to adopt such a title?    I suddenly became unsure of how to introduce myself.  

Many of our more experienced Sisters grew up in a world where it was normal to be Sister ________.  These women are often comfortable being known as that, and I am comfortable addressing them as that.  In some cases, the title “Sister” is used almost as if it replaced the religious woman’s first name and comes usually with respect and love:  Thank you, Sister.  What do you think, Sister?  I find myself doing this in our Motherhouse nursing area (confession: especially if I can’t actually remember her name!)  

For myself, I'm hesitant to throw it out there and uncertain when it applies. Do I change my name on Facebook (funny and honest question)?  Do I write it on nametags?  I'm very comfortable with it in formal settings, when everyone is "Mr." or "Ms." or whatever.  I'm okay with kids calling me Sister Tracy when they are referring to other adults in the same way.  But there is lots of grey area.  In a ministry setting, it might establish appropriate boundaries, or it might make someone uncomfortable to share with me.  

A few times I’ve been called “Sister" in fairly casual conversations when others are called by their first names.  To me, that feels weird and like a reinforcement of old, erroneous thinking that religious are somehow different.  Why I am Sister Tracy if she isn’t Mrs. Ann?  I'm also hesitant to elicit special treatment.  I hope that I would be responded to with the same esteem whether I am "Tracy" or "Sister Tracy."  Unfortunately, that isn't always the case.  I would never want to perpetuate ideas that keep religious on an imaginary pedestal.

Occasionally, instead of inflated admiration, the title could create other kinds of discomfort at the outset of a conversation.  People may (unnecessarily) worry about judgment and feel that they have to act or speak differently.  Or they may (unfairly) expect me to act or speak differently.

I do see goodness in using the title at times.  Especially because there are so few young religious, I want people to know that I have chosen this and am happy!  I like the shock value and the conversations that it can spark about the religious life or faith in general.  “You’re Sister?”  Yes!  And there are others like me!  And more on the way!  Calling myself  "Sister Tracy" can help put it out there forthright and whittle away at stereotypes.  Perhaps in the future young Sisters won’t hear:  Hmm…you don’t look like a Sister.  

So, there are complexities attached to the word.  I've only said “Sister Tracy” a few times when it seemed appropriate, like at a vocation dinner, or at the beginning of a formal presentation, or when another Sister in the conversation did so before me.  Many Sisters say that in most settings, they introduce themselves with their first name and then share that they are Sisters of Charity as the conversation progresses, much like someone might share their profession or how many kids they have.  I like that.  Hi. I’m me and you’re you.  It establishes an equal playing field off the bat.

Some of the amazing women I get to share this with:
Novitiate community mates (at our super-fun
Valentine Party!)
Of course, it's not only the title that comes with connotations.  The title is a symbol of the identity.  At some point, when it surfaces that I'm a Sister, any number of conversations, positive or negative could ensue.  So apart from the word, perhaps the most important question is:  What do I believe about being Sister Tracy?  Being “Sister” is a humbling, marvelous gift.  When I am introduced as Sister next to fellow Sisters who have celebrated Golden Jubilees and touched countless lives through the years, I wonder for a minute how I could ever share the same title.  Certainly, I am not as much “Sister” as they are, right?  If that is a doubt in me, I am never made to feel that way by my fellow Sisters.

Mostly, I feel like and want to be called Tracy, but there is a newness and a profound acknowledgment of the commitment I am making.  My heart skips a little joyful beat when I am signing my name on something official and remember that I get to add the “S.”  It is a jubilant reminder of what I am on the way to.  I am growing into it, as would be expected for a novice.  I imagine that those who graduate med school don’t feel like “Doctor” in a day; I imagine that being a “Mrs.” evolves and deepens through each passing day of marriage.  I’m figuring it out, just like the doctor’s office receptionist.   From time to time, there will be #youngsisterproblems, but mostly, there are #youngsistergraces.

Happy young Sisters!  Andrea and me with Tracey
and Arrianne of the Sisters of Providence
I can say, on this last day of National Catholic Sisters Week, what a treasure it is to be linked with a word, whether uttered or not, that carries such a powerful legacy.  If being “Sister” means trying to love radically, walk with those who are suffering, confront injustices, and respond to the needs of the times, as Sisters have done faithfully through the years, then how I desire to be Sister Tracy!   It is an honor to share this life form with so many inspiring women. 

It seems that titles in themselves are not so important in the end.   At times, I might shout it from the rooftops.  At times, I might say it only in my actions. When it comes down to it, I'm Tracy, y'all.  It's the witness of our lives that defines us (all of us!).  I am proud to be a young Sister, excited for the future of religious life, and so grateful for God’s call that got me here.

  Happy National Catholic Sisters Week!

Yes, you  
(by: me -- 3/13/2014)

Who, me?

Yes! says God.  It’s who
I call you
to be.

The ones gone before
made it up as they went,
I filled each woman with her Yes
Just as I breathe life

Be who you are -
It is written on your
Little Sister, you are becoming,
and you 
have more than made a start

Carrier of a wondrous history
Dreamer of a future hopeful and new
Change-agent in our world today
You are all of these: 
Yes, you! 

Claim your Sister-hood with Love
Live into your call

“Sister” isn’t a title
but a


after all.