“Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door”

“Knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door”

It fascinates me that one of the most influential rules of all of Christian monasticism has a chapter devoted to opening the door.  In the Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 66:  The Porter of the Monastery states,  “At the door of the monastery, place a sensible person who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose wisdom keeps them from roaming about.  The porter will need a room near the entrance so that visitors will always find someone waiting there to answer them.  As soon as anyone knocks or a poor person calls out, the porter will reply, ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘Your blessing, please,’ then, with all the gentleness that comes from the reverence of God, provide a prompt answer with the warmth of love.  Let the porter be given one of the younger members if help is needed.” 

               While it may seem very strange that such a rule would focus on the person who answers the door it is, in fact, of critical importance.  You see, the way that we answer the door is the way in which we deal with the world.  If we prefer to focus on ourselves and our own needs then, when the doorbell rings, we will most likely feel bothered and annoyed.  But if our focus is turned toward the needs and cares of others then, when the doorbell rings, we will be excited by the possibility that we have an opportunity to be kind and of some assistance to a person in need. 

               Here at the Mercy Conference and Retreat Center, we feel privileged to be the porters of this house!  We are a group of crazy Christians who love to be interrupted and barged in upon.  We strive to maintain a culture of welcome and hospitality.  Here you will not find any “no trespassing” signs but rather, you will find a group of people ready to welcome you day and night in the spirit of Catherine McAuley – foundress of the Sisters of Mercy.

               The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that mercy is “a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion.”  I believe that we have all experienced God’s mercy in our lives and, because of that, we are compelled to be people of mercy.  This is why I love being a part of the Mercy Conference and Retreat Center where we as a staff get to be a blessing to the community that we serve here in the Saint Louis Metropolitan area and beyond!

Dave Malek
Feast of St. Benedict

How Do You Measure Up?

How Do You Measure Up? 

Success is measured in many ways.  Each of us has our way of measuring our personal and professional successes.  How do we learn what success is? How do we learn to measure it? Who determines who is successful?  Everyone at some point has either asked themselves or will ask themselves, how have I been successful and how was that measured?  
I believe that everyone possesses the deep desire to be successful and that our success will be measured in monumental wealth.  After all, we live in America and are “entitled” to the “American Dream.” What exactly is the “American Dream?” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the “American Dream” is defined as this: “A happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful with good jobs, a nice house, two children, and plenty of money, they believed they were living the American dream.”  
Over the past many years I have begun to dismantle the “American Dream” for myself.  Honestly, I cannot say that I never believed in the same dream that by which others mark their success.  As I was growing up, I understood success would be measured by getting married, having children, living in a house with a white picket fence, and by the size of my bank account and investments.  Is this sounding familiar to anyone? Little did I know someone else’s expectations would measure my success in life. Someone else’s values have been placed on my life. How could I ever measure up?  How could I ever be accepted by those who were middle to upper class?
Growing up in Southeast Texas there were not a lot of options for my future.  I knew that I would have to work harder than my friends and family to get anywhere.  The question was, how was I going to do that? At fifteen I moved from living with my mom in Southeast Texas to living with my dad in the Ft. Worth area.  The move came as a great shock to me. I went from a small school district where you know everyone in the school to a large high school where there were approximately 2500 students.  I went from living in the country to city life literally overnight. One moment I am living in poverty to the next moment not worrying about whether or not I would have a meal. I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for the transition, but I knew I had to take that chance.
After my high school graduation, I attended the junior college not far from my dad’s house.  After two semesters of not knowing what direction I was headed, I again made a choice to quit college and join the Coast Guard.  This decision was made out of hope and desperation with a little adventure poured in. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”  This is in fact what I was doing. I left behind everything that was familiar for the unfamiliar. This hope-filled leap was being taken for the second time in my life.
During my tenure with the Coast Guard, I measured hundreds of successes and failures.  Sometimes the achievements were measured in lives saved and sometimes they were not. The mariner nor I was able to outsmart Mother Nature and poor human decisions.  I couldn’t save everyone, but I did my best with the resources I had. After twenty years of majoring in search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, as well as maritime pollution response, I decided to set my sails in a different direction.
Michael John Bobak said, “All progress takes place outside the comfort zone.”  For Religious Life is outside anyone’s comfort zone and I was about to find out how true that statement was.  Once again taking a hope-filled leap into the unknown. Some would say that Religious Life is counter-cultural, I would agree, and so is joining a military sea-going service.  Before I entered Religious Life, I felt I had to divest myself of “things.” I can honestly say that divesting my life of “things” was much easier than I thought it would be. You have to understand that by this time in my life I would be measured as “successful.”  I had the car, the house, minus the children and the picket fence. I also had excellent investments and a sum of money in my bank account. So, by the Merriam-Webster’s definition, I had achieved the status of “successful.” Then why in the deepest part of my innermost being did I feel incomplete?  That’s right, success for me has never been measured in things and the size of my investment portfolio. I fell into the trap that our culture puts on the next generation.
Once I started to divest myself of property, I was able to think more clearly, to make better decisions, to stop chasing the almighty dollar, and I was able to make decisions based out of “freedom” from.  Freedom from running, freedom from working overtime, freedom from having to produce to be deemed worthy by our society, and by my family. Please do not misunderstand me, there is no ill will by my family, but there is an expectation of working until you can’t work anymore and you have to fall back on your investment portfolio to support you in your declining years.
Tony Hsieh said, “Stop chasing the money and start chasing the passion.”   I was beginning to figure out that I am full of passion. I needed to follow that passion, and in doing so, I answered a pull to my heart to enter another “counter-cultural” lifestyle. Passion triggers in me different things but mostly to be of service to others.  Once I stopped chasing the over-inflated “American Dream,” I began to understand that success is measured in more ways than having a house, car, and financial stability. My success was taking shape right before my eyes, and I was for the first time in my life at peace with the path I was on.  
Each step I have taken in my life has been a message of hope and realization that success will not be measured by the size of my house, car, or my retirement fund.  Success will be measured differently. “In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away,” Shing Xiong. Take time to stop and smell the roses, to see the beauty in nature and to embrace the many ways success can be measured.  Take back your own identity and live life as it is to be lived. So, in the end, how do you measure “success”?

 Patti Baca, RSM

Tales of the Labyrinth pt 2

Imago Scriptura

…another time did come.  We were given an hour before lunch today to reflect on how the Spirit spoke to us this week.  So, after the experience this morning with the Labyrinth, I knew it was time to go back.  What I was desiring as I walked over there was to “feel” it deeply.  I wanted to be solely focused on that time.  I took a cue from a new friend here from when I saw her walk it earlier in the week and I wanted to do the same.  So I started walking in on the shaded black mulch and felt so very connected to the path as I felt the wood and mulch on my bare feet.  I had my hands wide open as I walked and felt a warmth in my palms almost as if someone was holding my hands.

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Tales from the Labyrinth pt 1

Imago Scriptura

As I’ve done every morning while at this conference, I took a morning Labyrinth prayer walk.  This morning, I was walking as I have been doing but I saw something different.  As I passed one of the iris plantings, I noticed a few new blooms but they weren’t purple – they were orange and yellow!  Wow!  So, I had to stop and take a picture.  I didn’t have my DSLR with me so I just took this picture with my iPhone.  However, the first one I took had my finger over part of the lens, the second cut off part of the upper flower, and so  I had to get the third shot just right (and I didn’t even do that – the flowers are out of focus).  So I got the shot (I thought)  and was getting ready to head…

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Keeping Vigil

Keeping vigil takes a lot of energy!!
Staying awake and alert – being vigilant – can be hard work!!

Almost 71/2 years ago I spent 5 weeks here at Catherine’s Residence “keeping vigil” with my Mom during her last 5 weeks of this life until she crossed over into her “new life.” I remember the long days and seemingly endless nights wondering when the angel of death would arrive. Each day I asked myself, “Would this be the day?” There were several times during those weeks when I leaned over my Mom and whispered in her ear, “Mom, today would be a great day for you to cross over.” (I was getting tired!!) She would give me a gentle nudge as if to say, “Honey, it’s not time yet.” And so I kept waiting… but I didn’t wait alone.

The community “kept vigil” with me…Sisters Giles, Geralda, Bernadette, Angelita, and Roland made sure I ate and took breaks while they stayed with my Mom… and Agnes made sure I took walks outside…she even did my laundry a few times! I didn’t wait alone during that tender time. The community “kept vigil” with me, lovingly and faithfully.

This evening we gather once again as a community “keeping vigil” together. It is not as if we don’t know what happened that first Easter morning. We do. Rather we gather to remember that what happened to Jesus is promised to us… not only someday in the future, but right now! Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that by virtue of our baptism we are intimately united with Jesus in his life, death and resurrection. We carry within us the energy/power of Risen Life.

When we look at our world, we see what a mess it is…and it is a mess! We wonder, “Will this be the day:
*when Dreamers no longer fear deportation?
*when young people are free to learn or to walk the streets of their neighborhoods without worrying if they will be victims of gun violence?
*when Earth is reverenced as revelation of the Creator?
*when every person is honored as the presence of God regardless of race or creed?
*when war is no longer considered a path to peace?”

And yet, in the midst of escalating fear, isolation and violence the power of resurrection is at work. Every time we are awakened by the cries of suffering people…every time we choose to respond to those cries with works of justice and mercy (in whatever way we can), we are raised up and we in turn raise others, as well.

The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate revolution…though it be peaceful in the radical transformation it births. Death, in all its forms, no longer has power over us. Love has conquered sin and death once and for all. We need not fear to be who we are!

If you watched the news on television last weekend you sw the massive crowds across the world “Marching for Our Lives” led by fearless young people. What a powerful example of the revolution of resurrection at work!!!

Tonight we remember Jesus, the Risen One, raised from the dead and brought to new life by the One Who “kept vigil” with him, lovingly and faithfully. It was the God of Jesus Who awakened him to the cries of suffering people so that Jesus might “keep vigil” with them while on their own journey of transformation. As followers of Jesus, we, too, are called to “keep vigil” with our broken world. It is the same God who “vigils” with us…holding us with all of our questions, our longings, our fears, our betrayals and our hopes to make the reign of God real in our day.

The Spirit of Jesus fills us with the energy we need to be a reconciling presence of Mercy in a world desperately longing to be made whole.
Recall if you will, the mission to which our Community Leadership Team has called us:
“Be a sanctuary of peace in the world-
Grow in the practice of non-violence.
Promote a bold revolution of tenderness.
Speak a word of comfort to our suffering world.

We rejoice that our God is a God of Life who summons us to come forth from our tombs to be made new again. We celebrate that our God beckons us to unleash the power of resurrection in our day.

Catherine McAuley once wrote these encouraging words: Pray for your portion of the Easter Grace…do not give up until all is given you!!

Yes, “keeping vigil’ takes a lot of energy. It can be hard work. But the burden is lightened when we “keep vigil” together, lovingly and faithfully.

Indeed, it IS time for us to sing those Alleluias!!!

Ginger Andrews, RSM

Holy Saturday Homily, Easter Vigil Liturgy

The Labyrinth’s Work

Standing at the labyrinth arch, I always hesitate. I know I’m about to do something holy, something hard and holy, something expansive. The small wooden arched frame strains to hold up the heavy grasping honeysuckle vine. It has taken years for the vine to conquest the lattice sides, once covered by paint, now faded and worn. But, the weary looking frame has done its job by guiding the wild native vine to make an opening, a way in, a way into the holy.

Taking a few deep cleansing breaths, I reach up to brush the small metallic wind chime hanging down from the top of the arch and let its gentle chime announce my entrance. I’m always surprised how easy the second step is and wonder why the first step was so challenging. All I really have to do is put one foot in front of the other, stay between the limestone rock circular lines, and choose one burden at a time to fall off and out of me onto the path as I pass.

The winding circuitous path is just narrow enough from side to side to keep me focused on staying within its boundaries. Yet, the frontward distance seems ever lengthening, ever expanding inviting me, almost pulling me forward. Behind me, the path also lays long and limitless with only my burdens marking the distance.

The longer I walk, the lighter I walk. Lips and feet now in sync, my forward movement becomes a prayer. The center can’t be too far now. My heart tightens and releases as I struggle to lift the last few secret hidden burdens and drop them along the labyrinth like a trail of dense, dead rocks, the last few the heaviest of all.

The center is the holiest part of the labyrinth. In the center of the center a sacred tree stands with roots penetrating deep and wide into the earth reaching places dark and mysterious while the tree’s trunk, branches, and leaves stretch upward and outward reaching limitlessly toward the sky. I touch the trunk and close my eyes. Deep brown red flows before my closed eyes. I am grounded.

Sitting on one of the tree stumps, I settle down to see what is left of me, now that I’m temporarily empty of all those heavy burdens, which are strewn like bread crumbs along the labyrinth’s circular path. I sink into the center under that sacred tree, empty and open. Time becomes inconsequential; the air feels heavy and sweet. The Spirit moves and fills. Something within me shifts, sometimes a flutter of insight dances by, sometimes a warm peace stirs. A healing infusion of presence soaks in. I’m full and ready.

I don’t even have to think about putting one step in front of the other. Now, I’m leading with my heart, not my feet. I approach that last heavy burden I dropped now sitting on the path where I unloaded it. I invite it along for the walk. Then, I move toward the next burden. When I dropped it, all I felt was its denseness, its dead weight. But as I walked by and invited it and eventually all the others along, they became the beautiful image of my mother or my friend, a work puzzle, an opportunity, a creative challenge, a new point of view.

I giggle. No one else is around as I lightly follow the limestone layers, first this way and then that, so I sing. Out loud, I sing what I see on a rock, how I’ve got peace like a river flowing down those long narrow paths. Love like a river, joy like a river flowing round and round in my soul.

Approaching the wooden arch, I touch the chime to announce my exit of the labyrinth and my entrance back into the world.  I know I’m about to do something holy, something hard and holy, something expansive.

Rev. Tina Newberry

Being Mercy – Creating Spaces of Welcome and Transformation

From where I sit, now, maybe more than at any other time in history, especially the history of the United States, there is a need for ministries like Mercy Conference and Retreat Center and the other retreat centers of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

We live in a world that is a place of division – I am Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim, U.S. citizen, immigrant or refugee.  We need places where one can say “I am a part of the human family, a child of the Divine.”

We live in a world that is constantly inundating us from all sides with information (fake and real), often in the form of tweets and sound bites.  We need places where one can stop, listen deeply and reflect clearly on what matters, with opportunities for silence and opportunities for sharing in more than hash tags and 140 characters.

We live in a world that focuses on accomplishment and requires constant human “doing” to achieve what, for some, are the minimum standards of food, clothing, and shelter.  We need places where one can be a human “being” and where those opportunities are not unavailable or limited because of one’s ability to afford them.

We live in a world where those who serve are constantly giving of themselves and never finding space for self-care, space to attend to peripheral or direct PTSD, space to create any type of internal emotional or spiritual reserves or resilience.  We need places where one can unplug, recharge and renew, and then return to the world replenished for the work ahead.

I believe that this state of the world in which we live impels us – as the Gospel and the examples of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy impel us – to create a welcoming space – sacred, healing, transformative – in an environment that is filled with beauty and connection to the earth and where all the obstacles are removed that would prevent a person from being able to just be.  Here they experience hospitality and care…to sleep if that is what is needed…to think and reflect on what is deeply meaningful alone or with one of our staff…to walk or pray, write or create, whatever is needed for that person.  And in making that space available to an individual or a group, we are part of bringing about the healing of our world.  We are a part of creating the change we want to see.

What makes us “Mercy” is the way in which we do what we do.  It is all the things that we believe matter – collaborative, empowering, accepting people where they are, offering the welcome and hospitality that Catherine would have offered were she here.  It is about doing everything that we do with excellence and with an attention to the whole person as part of the whole of creation.

It is the building and grounds which are indeed sacred space and which hold the spirit and prayers of all the Sisters who walked, prayed, learned, lived and served there.  And to that heritage is added each day the life’s journey of each one who comes through our doors – who feels the exhale the moment they come up the drive and who naturally quiet their voices and look up at the stained glass windows of the works of mercy as they enter and walk through our chapel.

What I see as essential is:

  • Welcoming each individual as he or she is, not as we might want them to be. It is being present, listening to and focusing on the whole person and how we can be most supportive from their perspective. It is being thoughtful and creative in our response.
  • It is creating a space for transformation where people can grow into their full potential as human beings cherished by God and recognizing that it is for God and them to discern what that is.
  • We create the space – God does the transformation. For me, that means that it is sometimes the smile, the kind word, the comfortable mattress, or the right temperature in the meeting room – as much as any input or presentation we may offer – that opens a way for the Spirit to be at work in a person’s life.  We can’t control the outcome.  What we can do is be Mercy in the moment and in collaboration with the Spirit.
  • And all of these characteristics not only apply to our guests – they need to apply to how we are with our co-workers, our Board and volunteers, and our sisters.

I believe that in order to sustain the ministry, and the challenge, is to be relevant and to be agile and adept to respond to the needs of the people of this time.  Structures can sometimes be helpful or hinder us in this regard.  Histories, as well, can sometimes hold us back from what is possible.  Language and how we describe who we are or what we do can sometimes invite and other times exclude.  Part of our role, I believe, is to celebrate our heritage and not get stuck in it, so that we can be present to what is now before us.

In order to be relevant in a rapidly changing world, we must no longer come from the place of build it and they will come or depend exclusively on the ways in which people have found us in the past.  We need to go out into the highways and byways and talk with individuals and groups.  We may need to look at language like a space for respite, to unplug and recharge instead of exclusively naming something a retreat or day of reflection.  We may need to be open to taking our retreats to those guests who can no longer come because they are in nursing homes or repurpose talks and make them available through some form of podcast because people are working full-time, caring for children and aging parents and don’t have the time to come to us.

We want to be open to conversations with other nonprofit organizations and groups to not only learn what the needs for respite and renewal are, but to have a way to reach out to and connect with their clients, staff, and boards.  In strategic collaboration we grow in what we offer and whom we serve.  We also create a possibility for financial support for programs which might not otherwise have been available.

And what about those millennials who don’t consider themselves religious or even spiritual and yet who have a passion for peace, nonviolence, social justice, care for the earth and making a difference in the world…all those things that we associate with the Sisters of Mercy?  How is it that we reach them and listen to their needs and create a space for them as they seek to do good in the world? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been a 20-something for a very long time, and may not know what will be the place of connection for them.  It means not making assumptions, but educating ourselves, reaching out or inviting people in and asking…what would be meaningful for you.

Even though we are in a very different world than when our ministry began 40 years ago, we are still living out of our roots in Mercy – offering hospitality in the spirit of Catherine McAuley so that anyone who comes through our doors knows that he or she is welcomed, invited into our sacred space and grounds, and held in prayer and tended to with care for whatever their purpose.  And whether that space and grounds are always physical, whether it is on the campus or out in the world, the form may change but the spirit of Mercy remains.

I feel humbled to be called and totally committed to lead a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy and continue this legacy.  I love this prayer from the Mercy Spirituality booklet published in 2011:  God of Mercy, we pray for courage to see the needs of the world in which we live; for prudence to know those needs which we can address and for wisdom to respond in ways that address the needs and maintain the dignity of all.  And I believe that the God of Mercy is responding – these ministries are mine…here…now…trust in me and I will show you the way that I need you to be Mercy now and in the future.

Dawn Stringfield, Executive Director