Thursday, February 25, 2010

Going for the Gold

I’ve been thinking about Lent and watching the Olympics. The motto of the Olympic Games is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The words of the motto were coined by Father Henri Martin Didon of the Dominican Order, principal of the Arcueil College near Paris. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a friend of Father Didon, heard him give a speech at the end of an interschools athletics meeting. The Baron, a founder of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, was struck by the phrase, and made it the Olympic motto, pointing out that “athletes need freedom of excess.”

In my opinion, the downside of this phrase led to the abuse of the body that we see in the Games today. Will the motto drive the Games to the quest for the next most exotic and daring event that lead athletes to death, brain damage, multiple and irreversible injuries and emotional trauma? Are we as sports fans expecting the athletes to deliver greater and greater thrills even at the risk of their lives? How much will be given up to go for the gold?

My thoughts led me to think of the past exercises of Lenten discipline in which spiritual athletes laid upon themselves daunting, rigorous practices to bring the body into submission to the soul. We might say that they, too, were practicing freedom of excess. The prophets of old always cautioned God’s people to look for the practices that truly brought transformation of soul. Think, for example, of the words of the prophet Micah:

“Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams or in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? No. God has told you what is good: And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Spiritual excess and hubris or the truly difficult transformation required by living with justice, love, kindness and humility? I leave it up to you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mission to China (2)

The museum exhibit, Mission to China and Taiwan 1930-2010 is taking shape. Last week Sister Moira Wild (Director of Haehn Museum) toured Dr. Rachel Zhu, Professor of Religious Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, through the exhibit, such as it is. Dr. Zhu marveled at the number and kind of artifacts we have from China and at the story of our Sisters’ ministry, a story all but forgotten among mainland Chinese. She paused the longest at the photos of the Sisters with the wounded soldiers in Kaifeng in 1938.

Kaifeng is the city our Sisters moved to in 1935. They had been in Peiping since 1930, studying Chinese and teaching college-prep courses to young women wanting to enter Fu Jen University. Lack of finances for the school forced the Sisters to turn their work over to another religious community.

In Kaifeng the Sisters opened a medical dispensary and were planning to continue educational work, but the Sino-Japanese War put that on hold. The Sisters played a major role in caring for wounded Chinese soldiers who train load by train load passed through Kaifeng, desperate for medical attention.

A letter to Mother Louise Walz from Sister Francetta Vetter in 1938 graphically describes the situation in Kaifeng:

We are going around in circles these days so fast that we hardly know what day of the week it is…. Thousands of wounded soldiers have been brought from the battlefield through Kaifeng…. The sight of these terribly wounded men is enough to melt one’s heart to tears. There are big men, little men, few fat men, skinny men, young men, old men, all one mass of wounds and blood and pus. Many of them when they arrive here, have not had their wounds dressed for four and more days…. Sometimes we leave here in the forenoon and do not return until after nine p.m., then we hurriedly eat supper and then we must replenish our supply baskets—cut gauze, cotton, etc., and finally we snatch a little sleep…. Please do not worry about us, dear Mother. We do, of course, take our life into our hands, so to speak, when we go to dress the wounded soldiers during the daytime for there is always great danger of bombing. Please do not recall us. It would break our hearts to leave our post.

Valiant women—with more experiences of war ahead for them. I will write about this in a future blog.

The exhibit opens Sunday, March 14. There is a preview dinner on Thursday, March 11, in the lobby of Art and Heritage Place. For more information, click here.

To read my earlier post on the China story, click here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dog Sled reflections...

In January, Sister Trish Dick and Sister Katherine Kraft took students from Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict on a dog sled retreat in Ely, Minnesota.

Sister Katherine Kraft wrote a reflection for the blog, which you can find here.

The students also participated in a Friday Forum, where they spoke (with S. Katherine) about the experience. We have posted three brief videos of those reflections on our web site.  CLICK HERE to view them on the Ministries page.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Our Father" revisited

As Minnesota Public Radio keeps me up to date on international happenings, I become more aware of the strife and chaos in so many corners of the globe. Recently these verbal scenarios surfaced for me as we were praying the Our Father in our daily Liturgy of the Hours. It drove me to the keyboard and a 2010 Version of this familiar prayer emerged.

Our Father

Oh Living One, You who reign in heaven,
Whose holy name gives life.
Send your heavenly rain to our peace-thirsty earth.
Teach our hearts to recognize your provision of our daily needs.
And forgive us when we forget to be grateful and compassionate to others
And ourselves
Allow our very breath to be Yours,
That fear and greed may have no place in us.
May your power, magnificence & wisdom
Be present now and forever
Some of you bloggers have probably created your own “Our Father” as you have journeyed through life. If so, I would be delighted to be a repository of your versions of this prayer to
enrich my praying of it in days to come.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Shawl-Knitting Ministry

Knitting into the Mystery is the title of a wonderful present I received at Christmas this year. A few years ago I was intrigued when an Oblate of our monastery told me that she was knitting a prayer-shawl for the dying niece of one of our sisters. I remember thinking that it would be something that I would like to do during long winter evenings so at Christmas I dropped a few hints, and behold under the tree wrapped in bright paper and a big red bow were knitting needles, a pattern book and Knitting into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry. Yarn was purchased in early January with a gift from a old friend and I began my first shawl. Now, halfway through February, I am on a second shawl. The pattern I used for the first shawl was simple: K every row. Now I am using the pattern of K3, P3. I quickly discovered that staying focused as I knit has been a challenge: if my mind wanders, or I get caught up in watching the olympics, or engage in conversation, I can easily lose count. Isn't this a metaphor for life: having a contemplative presence to another means to give the other our full attention, less than that the connection is interrupted, and as in knitting, repair work is necessary.

How do I use my knitting as a prayer? Each time I begin a new row I intentionally connect in my heart with the person for whom I am knitting the shawl. In the case of my second venture it is the mother of a 12-year old boy who has been very ill all his life. Most of us who know this young boy can do little to help the situation but we can find ways to be supportive and loving; for me at this time knitting a shawl is an easy way to do that.

Since the very first time I heard about knitting prayer shawls, I have had a dream that one day some of our sisters, along with a few oblates, would get together every week to knit their prayer shawls. Stories could be shared about the person for whom the prayer shawl is being knit; I imagine much laughter and perhaps even a few tears. Lasting bonds would be formed between the sisters and the oblates, and community would happen.

If you, Sister, or you, Oblate, are interested in joining others in this ministry of knitting prayer shawls, I would be happy to get you started. Happy knitting!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reflection: Volunteering in Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Two mornings a week a bus picks up twelve of us to travel to the House of Resurrection in Kwazakhele Township. This AIDS Haven was begun by Anglican nuns in the '60s. At first it was a hospice for adults who had AIDS. Over time, mothers brought their children who became orphans when their parents died. Gradually, the Haven was declared a place for children only, as it is today.

Dottie Moss organizes our CSB/SJU students with the help of Matron Agnes and her assistants. Most of the hours are spent in daycare for children ages 2, 3 or 4. The students partner one-on-one helping a child with recognizing shapes and colors, developing motor skills and learning to be respectful.

At the same time, we also volunteer at a primary school in New Brighton Township. Pendla Primary enrolls 500 children from kindergarten through seventh grade. Here seventeen CSB/SJU students are partnered with thirteen teachers.

The students assist the teachers in the classroom by tutoring small groups, correcting papers, reading stories aloud and administering spelling tests, among other things. On the playground, they organize play or play soccer with many of the children. Since the children love to sing, they are often teaching new songs and dances to the college students.

My time at Pendla is spent talking to the principal, observing classroom activity and making notes about concerns, both mine and the CSB/SJU students. It is all good work, but I wonder how House of Resurrection and Pendla Primary will be better off when we leave? I ponder this question because we are not only giving of our time every week for 15 weeks, but we raised $6,000 to assist these two places. How shall we spend the money?

Do we buy chairs for the small children who no longer have a decent place to sit? Do we fix something that's broken? Do we continue to pay the salary of the gardener who raises vegetables for the school lunch served every day?

Shall we buy uniforms for the school age children from House of Resurrection? Shall we help furnish one of the new cottages? Will we make any lasting differences in the lives of these children? What is our short-term goal? How can we meet the long-term goal of helping them help themselves?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When you care enough to send the very best - (Hallmark's trademark)

How often I look for “the very best” to gift my friend, my community and my family.
What I have learned is that “very best” isn’t found in token items, beautiful cards or expensive gifting. Rather, the gifting of my true self to another is the very best offering of love. It places me in a stance of vulnerability and trust as I expose my strengths and my limitations. The beauty of this way of self-giving frees me to claim my person as one who is continually becoming the more of who I am meant to be. When I choose to gift from my authentic self I am able to: speak with confidence and claim my fears; let my words be formed from a heart of gratitude and allow the sting of disappointment speak its truth to me; release the guards I have placed at the door of my heart and welcome in forgiveness those who have left scars upon my heart.

The gift of me won’t be wrapped in beautiful paper with an elegant bow that creates curiosity and excitement. The gift of me will be offered in the very ordinary and daily encounters of life. This is where I am becoming the more I am meant to be. … the very best of me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

College Campus Capers

There are so many advantages to being a member of a monastery that shares a campus with the students attending the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. On the evening of January 22, Sisters Stefanie and Cecelia experienced that advantage in a new and rather unique way. They were part of a packed audience that had been enjoying a show by the talented and entertaining Jared Sherlock. When they left the Escher Auditorium they were quite dismayed to find that during the show a rainy ice had covered the sidewalks and parking lots. Three college women noting their apprehension offered to walk the Sisters to their residence in Evin Hall. The three students (Baylee Mehr, Maura Sullivan and Kalleah Morseth) linked arms with the two Sisters and five-strong they made their way across campus. However, when they reached the incline that is part of the entrance into the parking lot, all five went down in the blink of an eye. Together they all fell forward onto their stomachs right into the wet road.

The Sisters told me how at first all that the five of them could do was lie there giggling hysterically. They found that trying to get up on that icy surface was almost impossible. Finally they crawled to where there was a snowy surface and helped each other up. They told me that they were barely on their feet when two other students (Catherine Pollock and Rachel Welz) rushed up and told them they could help these Sisters home because they were hockey players. And at that point another student (hockey player, Brenna Gould) approached and offered to give the Sisters a ride in her car. The Sisters protested that they were really not far from their residence, but the hockey students insisted on getting them into the car and making sure that they got delivered right to the door. What a boon it is to be on a college campus where young, observant and adventurous students volunteer their aid so generously.
To read more about the relationship between the Sisters and the college, see the Winter 2010 issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends magazine. Click here to access the online copy.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Hearing Voices

On Wednesday evening, January 27, between 8:15 and 9:20 p.m., I was glued to the televised live broadcast of President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Alongside four companions, I took note of the setting, row upon row of representatives and senators and watched their body language. There were many smiles, frequent handshakes, some back slaps and, from one side of the aisle particularly, mainly stony faces.

The president spoke of the hopes and aspirations of the American people, their fears and anger about the extraordinary economic upheaval this nation has been going through for almost two years now. He quoted from letters he has received and referred to stories about people who have suffered or managed to succeed in these perilous times. That makes me ask: what voices are heard on Pennsylvania Avenue? Who speaks up and how are they sure of being heard?

St. Benedict states in his Rule that the abbot or abbess should seek counsel, the advice (and consent?) of many voices as he or she makes decisions. He refers first to senior advisors—known for their wisdom and community-mindedness—to share in the process of decision making. But Benedict then advocates calling upon “the young”—the less experienced, though no less community-minded—to also serve as advisors. To me, this means giving credence and respect to a variety of voices, a diversity which can be enriching —though admittedly also confusing and perhaps even contradictory at times.

President Obama needs to and seems to hear many voices as he ponders courses of action for this nation. Presidents (like abbots and abbesses) can rely so heavily upon an “inner circle” that they fail to hear the full range of voices which are clamoring to be heard. Worse yet would be an atmosphere of fear or apathy preventing the raising of these voices. Fortunately, there is no lack of people ready and willing to speak up—nationally and locally. In my own community, I am so grateful that there are a goodly number who regularly speak up and share concerns, ideas and ideals—all of which can enlarge and enliven our present and future hopes and plans.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sister Teresa Duerr's Final Journey

The sisters in our community are both grieving and celebrating the final journey of Sister Teresa Duerr who died on Monday, January 11, 2010. Just ten and a half months before that, on February 25, Teresa received her pancreatic cancer diagnosis – a date that happened to be Ash Wednesday. As she found out that her cancer was inoperable and experienced that chemo treatments were extremely difficult for her, she made a brave decision. She wrote a letter to all of us in the community telling us she did not wish to do anything more to prolong her life. In the letter she asked us to accompany her on her final journey with our love and our prayers. It was difficult for all of us to see this happening. She was only 73 years old and still very active. In our community 73 is considered a young age. S. Teresa had been a delightful friend to many of us and all of us knew her as a faithful Benedictine monastic. We were not at all ready to think of having her leave us.

S. Teresa was able to carry on life here at our monastery until some time in August, 2009. At that point she again wrote a letter to all of us telling us that she had come to a place where she felt she needed the support of a nursing staff and would be moving to St. Scholastica (our nursing and retirement house). I recall that the handwriting on this note was small and spidery – the handwriting of someone whose trembling hand makes writing difficult. As the months went by we saw her becoming weak and fragile. Teresa died early in the morning on January 11. Many Sisters in our community had been taking turns keeping watch with her during the two weeks before she died.

S. Teresa’s loving acceptance of her death was a gift to all of us. Her invitation to us to accompany her on the stages of her journey was both a challenge and a privilege. We are relieved that her suffering is over and she has completed her journey home to God, but we miss her deeply.

For S. Teresa's obituary on the monastery Web site, click here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

God, Dogs and Dog Sledding

“God, Dogs, and Dog Sledding”: an unlikely combination, or an unforgettable experience of God’s beauty in dogs, frozen lakes, snow-covered pines, and sledding in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota? That’s what 13 college students, Sister Trish Dick and I experienced during a four-day retreat which combined dog sledding, cross country skiing and snowshoeing with prayer, silence, reflection and community building. What made this retreat so memorable?

I want to say, “It’s the dogs!” Imagine being greeted every morning by a chorus of 65 dogs howling not only for their breakfast, but for connection with us. We won’t easily forget: Lufa, Isis, Orion, Patches, Fennel, Samson, Daisy, Larry, all the dogs, and Wilbur, the everywhere-we-went-puppy.

They taught us what it means to be whole-hearted about what you were born for--in their case, pulling, running, connecting with each other and with us. They helped make us a community. Together, we raced over frozen lakes and bogs, through forests, up and down hills. Together, we fed and watered the dogs, cleaned the dog yard, and thanked them for their hard work. Together, we prayed, played, talked, laughed, and discovered the sheer goodness of each other. I’d do it again, in a minute!

submitted by Katherine Kraft, OSB