Three Day Retreat
It is a special gift to be with you these next three days. I have such happy memories of our working together on church history puzzles and an assortment of other things. And here you are now back from your various assignments preparing to renew your vows and I have been asked to reflect with you on that and on some other things. I must admit that I find myself wondering if anyone asked you what you would like me to reflect on. That isn’t often the way things works, is it? But let me get back to that later.
In the days when we called spirituality ascetical theology we had a phrase that many of us came to know early on in our spiritual lives but usually understood only much later. It is the term “first fervour”. It meant that we came to the seminary or the convent or to marriage for that matter, overjoyed with the prospect of having found our way in life, answering the call to a particular vocation or state in life. There was nothing wrong with our choice. It was perfection itself. This may have lasted for months. In some cases it lasted for years. But somewhere along the line comes the “fall”, the change, the end of infatuation with the situation or with the people connected with it, probably including ourselves, and then the difficulties set in.
This doesn’t just happen with a state in life. It can happen in connection with the work that we have chosen to do or been assigned to do. It can happen with studies we undertake. It can happen with peope we love. We can and do ask ourselves what we are doing and why we are doing it. It can be a real crisis of faith. What reason is there to continue to hope? What reason is there to continue to believe in ourselves, in others, sometimes even in God. Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, was no joke. He meant it and so have hundreds of thousands of the best of human beings before him and after him.
I want to remind you today that the worst thing you can do when and if you face this kind of crisis in your life is to deny its existence. Those who deal positively with these kinds of difficulties can and often do become men and women of maturity and/or of greater maturity. Those who do not often become bitter and cynical and sour persons and deny their own humanity in the process. Let me tell you why I say this. If we are loving and caring human beings, and most of us surely want to be that, what we feel resentment, we can often be sure that that is God at work in us. When we see others being treated unfairly and are hurt by that, often that is God’s Spirit at work in us. When we are being treated unjustly, when there is no compassion or justice being meted out to us by those in charge of us or even those we call friends, the resentment that we feel is often God given. It is God’s way of inviting us to be just and compassionate persons by effecting changes that need to be made for ourselves and/or for others.
Is this easy? No. Can we be deceiving ourselves? Yes. Can we be putting our self-worth over and above that of others? Yes. Do we have a right to be reasonably content in who it is that we are and what it is that we do? Absolutely. Is not our God as revealed by Jesus determined to wipe away every tear and end any and every sadness? Yes. And didn’t Jesus give his life to make clear that God does not want our sacrifices but our joy?
Yes. A life lived well involves suffering. But suffering is highly over-rated in most of our spirituality. Suffering more often than not leaves people bitter and destroyed. And suffering that is deliberately inflicted for no matter what end is sadism. We need to clean up our acts on this in many of our convents and seminaries and in our homes. Abuse usually creates abusers. Genuine loving kindness usually creates lovers.
I want to suggest to you that much of the pain in human relationships of any sort is that people confuse functional relationships with personal relationships. Let me explain what I mean. When people who study such things look at the breakdown of marriages today they often see that in marriages that are in trouble the people are spending too much time together, not too little. They also often see that the marriages do not have what they are calling a “third party” in them, that is something that the couple together want to do and is a goal that they share. It may be working on a better environment, or helping people to move out of poverty, or working for women’s causes. In other words, the marriage itself offers a personal relationship but within it, there is a function, there is something that the couple want to do, need to do, and working toward that makes staying together valuable and imperative.
Isn’t there a similar need in convents and seminaries? We are human beings first. We need to believe that our existence is not in vain. We need to believe that what we do matters to others and to the cosmic scheme of things. That goes for you as well as for the sister in the kitchen making sure that you are well fed and properly nourished. Is there anything worse in the world than being taken for granted? Is there anything worse than never, ever hearing a thank you from those closest to us?
Young people today often see the adults in their lives as the enemy. Some sociologists are tracing this to the Beatles, believe it or not. They were the first to drum into people, literally, that they didn’t have to look to the wisdom of generations to live their lives effectively. They developed an ahistorical generation which are now the “Boomers” and this has happened cross culturally, and you are the children of these boomers. Even in India where conformity is given such high priority, where divergent thinkers find it hard to make their way, this mentality is growing.
I want you to think about something overnight and tomorrow I may ask you to give me the results of your personal inquiry. Think of the happiest moment of your life so far. Think of when you felt the world was your oyster, God was in heaven and all was right with the world. And then put some words onto that experience. I suspect you will come up with words like “acceptance”, “respected”, “valued”, “appreciated”, “listened to”. But I don’t want to put words into your mouth. I do want you to write out that experience and these words around the margins. And I also want you to think about what it would be like if you brought those values to everyone with whom you live and work and relate to in any way.
Stay turned for tomorrow when we talk about spiritual entrepreneurship.
I’d like you to take a minute and share with me some of the qualities you found in your looking at the very happiest experience of your life to day.
If one of you is brave enough to tell us about the experience itself that would be wonderful.
Thanks so much for that. Doesn’t this put a whole new spin on what it means to say “do unto others as...” Just think about what it would be like for those with whom you live and work if all those qualities that made you so happy were found in your relationships with them.
I know that many of you may be thinking, “But I want them to respect me as well, especially the older sisters.” But somebody has to start. Many of the older sisters in the community grew up expecting that in their older age they would be taken care of with unquestioning obedience and fidelity by their younger sisters. That had been their role as beginners in the community and what they expected would be their bonus at the end of their lives. Their world has been turned upside down by many, many things. Today it is the young who expect to be cared for and coddled and who expect the adults in their lives to be fulfilling their needs. In North America those who are the “youth” of that culture are from 18-30, unheard of age-wise in the history of that area. In frontier times most were married by sixteen and now they are still considered in their late adolesence.
Let me make something clear to you, someone has to start. If you are generous it must rub off eventually. If you help where help is needed whether it is your job or not, if you are generous and willing, eventually it will make a difference. I know, I know, as a friend of mine says, there is a very fine line between a saint and a sucker. But if we are going to err, ought it not to be on the side of being generous rather than selfish, giving rather than hoarding, being grateful rather than grabbing. Somebody has to start.
I promised you some thought to day on spiritual entrepreneurship. And this follows on what I have just said. What is an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is someone who thinks outside the box. It means that one takes intiatives beyond one’s job description, especially in large organisations or communities, it means doing this without even losing sight of the community’s goal or mission. It means exercising one’s imagination. As a North American executive has put it, it means “Make your own luck.”
Why do I say that we need to be spiritual entrepreneurs? Because we have to think outside the boxes of our present institutions and ways of doing things if we are going to meet the real needs of real people. Canon Chaumont and Mother Gertrude established your community, as a group of laywomen remember, to work for the well being of poor women, and to bring them to the faith. Today we might say that the faith to which they need to be brought is faith in themselves, in their own worth, in their equality before God and Indian law, in their ability to be and become their best possible selves. I am not saying that you are not working at this already, but are the SMMI doing the very best job they could be doing along this line?
Is there even one of you here familiar with the website indianwomenonline? What are your own skills in information technology? Are your efforts helping Indian women to take their rightful place in terms of work in this area? Are your vocational training operations looking at the real world or are you simply passing on to others what you know without any knowledge of how marketable those skills might be? The spiritual entrepreneur breaks the mold, looks outside the box, and THAT is what rekindles the flame, ignites the spark, renews the fire that brought you here in the first place, or frankly, sends you away to another place where the truly creative work is to be found.
Let me make clear to you what is at the heart of this kind of spiritual entrepreneurship:
You must be adaptable. Your thoughts and your actions must be flexible and you must urge that on others.
You must see what others don’t. Look around you at what you are doing, how you are living and ask yourself if it is truly excellent work and if it isn’t decide what it needs to be and work toward that.
You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. You do have to be energetic. Modern business calls this kind of person a “champion”. You need to be willing to make an investment of your time and your talent above the usual amount you might be asked to give to a project to make it work.
Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Never be completely satisfied with the status quo. Sometimes I ponder what would have happened if Mother Gertrude had refused to take up the schools and dispensaries which the archbishop of Nagpur required of her. What if she and Canon Chaumont had stuck to their guns and said we go to the people and we do not insist that the people come to us. Listen to the stories of Sister Solange and Sister Assunta and others from Mandla District and hear what it was like when their project was people and not buildings. Is that charism to be lost in a world that so desperately needs that today?
Take lessons from the cowboys and cowgirls. What I mean is take risks. You need not take unnecessary risks but take risks. Do you know what is involved in training a horse? Against, ask Sr. Assunta. She loves horses incidentally. Truly, in most of living nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Money is never enough. It is amazing how cavalier founders and foundresses of religious communities often were about money. Is that the case today. How many sisters communities in particular seem to be always saving for a rainy day. It is almost as if they think we have monsoons twelve months running. Give your clients what they need and want, be of real service to them, and they will care for the rest.
Never rest on your laurels. Not to grow is to slide backwards. This may seem like a contradiction to what I said yesterday but genuine contentment, enjoyment means that you accomplish much that is good and you know that there is always more good to be done. That means that life is exciting and not insipid. What needs of women and their children are not yet being met and how can you meet them? This is a lifetime of joy in the making.
Follow your fantasies. Dreams are wonderful. Acting on dreams is the hard part. See the world as it really is but view it without fears and constraints and you will make your dreams a reality.
Invest in yourself. You are your community’s greatest asset. But, don’t get caught up in professionalism. Get all the learning that you can about what it is that holds your heart but know what what you learn is not the only way to do things. Those who are eclectic usually have much happier lives and more success in their relationships than those who rigidly enact their one right way of being human.
These ten commandments of spiritual entrepreneurship require courage. None of this is for the faint-hearted. And there will be pitfalls and disillusion along the way, but what a way that road will be.
I have some more homework for you. Today and overnight please think about THE thing that you feel needs to be worked on in the community in which you now find yourself and think long and hard about what YOU can do to effect that change. Tomorrow we’ll think together more about igniting that spark into a blazing fire.
I promised you that today I would share with you a way of igniting the spark into a fire. But before we get to that let me make one more thing clear. I have been speaking with you in very secular, very human language. I have not overlaid my thought with theological or philosophical jargon. And that has been deliberate on my part. Jesus didn’t speak with people in language that they could not understand. He met them right where they lived. His genius was in using the ordinary things around himself to make his points. We need to learn to do that as well. We need to speak in language that can be understood by a normal twelve-year-old. Anything other than that, any kind of in language is another kind of gnosticism, and I know from church history lessons you know what that is. Right?
What I have been doing is speaking with you in reality about the beatitudes. Let me give you a modern translation of them and remind you that in them Jesus pulls together two thousand years of Jewish history confirmed by his own experience of what makes for happiness.
Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the kingdom of heaven [God] is theirs.
Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them.
Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised.
Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully.
Happy are those hwo are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them.
Happy are the pure of heart; they will see God.
Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them friends.
Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; the kingdom of heaven [God] belongs to them.
Perhaps we can sum all of this up by saying, happy are those who know they know something but that they don’t know it all. Happy are the risk-takers. Happy are those who pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on themselves.
I just want to throw out a few more thoughts along this life about what constitutes a truly happy life. Don’t hold grudges. They eat you up. Don’t wait to be asked to do something or work to be a peacemaker. Christianity calls for creative intervention when we are confronted with evil or with dis-ease of body, mind, spirit. (That’s DIS-EASE). Resist peer pressure at all cost. You have the right to use the unique, irreplaceable self that you are at the service of all others. Love yourself but love more than yourself. This is at the source of abundant life. And Jesus did say, “I am come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”
Now I want you to work with me on a discernment process that can help to resolve any difficulty you encounter in your community, in your work, in your personal relationships. I want you to have a copy of this and we are going to read and discuss it together. Please don’t be afraid of talking out loud in the presence of Jesus. Jesus loved to listen to thoughtful women and have them listen to him. Here is the model. It is not carved in stone. It does work on the premise that people have within themselves the solutions to their own challenges. Solutions given to them from above simply do not work in the long run. They may provide quick fixes but in the long run unless those concerned themselves with the challenge come up with the solutions there is going to be difficult. So, let’s go.
We are meeting today to find a solution to this problem (Name it.)
We are going to work together respectfully to devise a solution we can all live with.
Getting the facts
What are the facts about this situation?
Let’s get data from as many angles as possble, especialy from the key people involved.
Personal reactions, associations, emotions, images
Which part of this situation makes you the most upset?
Which part of this situation bothers you the least?
What past experiences does this situation bring to mind?
Meaning, Values, Significance, Purpose, Implications
What are the possible causes of this situation?
What are the implications of this situation for each person involved?
What are the larger implications this situation might have?
What are some possible solutions we might explore?
What are the positive and negative implications of each of these solutions?
What values to we need to hold in a solution to this situation?
How might we weave all of this together to form a solution we can all live with?
Someone please write down our solution and read it back to us.
Is this accurate? Is this our decision?
How exactly do we implement it?
Who will be involved in the implementation?
Thank you very much for your thoughtful participation.
And I thank you very much for your thoughtful participation. I know that these command performances to which you are often called is not easy for you. I also know that the only situation for which there is no remedy is death. Believing that will give you the kind of faith that will move mountains .