Thursday, April 26, 2012

Birthday Supreme

Black Forest:
an indescribably delicious labor of love
Bacon, mushrooms, green peppers, salami, olives, capers, sundried tomatoes... am I missing anything else? These are the toppings that went on the homemade pizza that Chelsea and Theresa made for my birthday. One of the other postulants jokingly suggested that I sure was going to die after partaking of this masterpiece of a meal. Another one thought it was going to be absolutely inedible. Well, it's been weeks and I'm still alive (and kicking).

*Sigh*... Thirty three. Jesus' life on earth ended when he was 33. That's what tradition tells us. 33 is also what St. Thomas Aquinas suggests that our age would be in heaven. But only God knows.

A few weeks before my birthday, I started to panic about turning 33 and thought, “Yikes! What if I'm going to die this year?”. I know. I'm weird. I've shared this with a few people and even though they really listened, I knew they thought I was being silly. I did too but I really did panic.

Life and death is a reality that we all face. It's something that I have thought about since I was 13 when a close friend of mine passed away. No one has all the answers to our questions about life and death. None but God. That's what I believed when I was 13. Twenty years later, I still believe that is true. There are more questions and there are more answers too but there are still more questions... and more answers to come... so I'll just keep asking and the Lord will keep answering. Who says the conversation has to end anyway?

Celebrating birthdays are so much fun... especially in our convent here in St. Louis. We enjoy preparing the food and decorating the dining room and planning surprises big and small. This year, I almost fainted and had a heart attack when two of my friends from the Benedictine community in Clyde, Missouri came to surprise me for my birthday. They got both communities on board to keep the surprise a secret for a whole month! I still can't believe I didn't catch on.

But back to the pizza, one of our teachers describes reading the Scriptures like taking a bite of a pizza. You can't enjoy it unless you are able to taste all the ingredients in one bite. Each book of the bible must be read in the light of the whole. Well, just one bite of that Birthday Supreme and I was in heaven. Chewing on the Word of God does that too in a deeper way.

I wish I could write in great detail how each of my co-postulants and sisters in community made my birthday such a momentous occasion. They sure know how to make me feel loved. As I reflect and thank God for my life, my family, friends and my community, I recall the time when my parents would do the same thing and go all out to celebrate my life, to celebrate me. It is very humbling.

Living with a community of all women striving to give of themselves in love for God and for others makes planning a birthday party so much fun. I guess it's part of our “feminine genius”, it is natural for us to want to celebrate life itself and the life of another. It is part of our vocation. We can be sisterly and motherly in many ways, yes, even in planning a birthday party.

Then I realized... God is also planning a party. Like the party of the prodigal son as his father celebrated his return. Ah, yes... a birthday AND a welcome home party in one. That's what God is planning for us. That is what our death is going to be from heaven's perspective. Can I look at death this way? Can you?

Whoa! I didn't even get to talk about the cake, the decorations, the card, the gifts! And sorry, you must be wondering what the pizza looked like. It was gone before anyone could take a picture of it. :-)

Dear Jesus, you came down from heaven so that we may have eternal life. Grant we pray that we may be willing to die to ourselves so that we may live in you here and now. And as your witnesses, may the joy that you bring into our hearts be our strength as we proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth and as we journey towards the heavenly banquet that awaits us.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Miracles, Meatballs and Sr. Mary Joan

I know everything, except what I don't know...
In our convent there is one nun who is particularly special to the postulants, (and just about everyone else who meets her).

This special nun’s name is Sr. Mary Joan.

She is 83 years old and even though she is constantly saying she does not know how much longer she will be alive, no one can quite believe this nun will not be around until the second coming of Jesus.

Sr. Mary Joan has the memory of a recent MIT graduate and the muscle power of an eighteen year old. I once found her carrying a large box of oranges into the elevator. When I insisted on carrying it for her, I almost fell over because it was so heavy. And despite her age, Sr. Mary Joan amazes all of the sisters with her detailed memory of the distant past and near present. It is as if she carries a movie reel of her life in her head and can fast forward and rewind at will.

Sr. Mary Joan is surrounded by sisters younger than her but she makes anyone working with her feel old and lazy. Her apostolic heart is as alive as ever. When we go out to visit parishes or travel on long trips we can count on her prayers for us. Her heart is with us every step of the way. She works harder than all of the postulants put together, constantly cleaning, cooking, organizing, and thinking up new projects for the apostolate.

My first introduction to Sr. Mary Joan was during my first few days of postulancy when I was struck down by a mysterious, stress-induced illness, (being introduced to religious life can do this to a person). I holed myself up in my room for several days, feeling terrible, eating little, feeling sorry for myself and staring at the wall. I can only imagine what the other sisters were thinking; I would have placed bets on whether the newbie would leave in one day or three. Sr. Mary Joan responded to the situation in what I now know is her customary way. She ambled around the kitchen as if she were my grandmother, carefully preparing a warm, revitalizing soup. When she brought me the soup, she looked at me with understanding, nonjudgmental eyes, promised me her prayers for my recovery and told me firmly that I would be up and around in no time. Something about the way she said it made me believe that it was true.

I am pretty sure all of the postulants would say that this incident is emblematic of the person Sr. Mary Joan is – warm, full of energy and vitality, always ready to go the extra mile, and ready to give a little extra encouragement to anyone who needs it .

Yes, Sr. Mary Joan is my biggest fan....
Perhaps the most endearing quality of Sr. Mary Joan is her love for Pope Benedict XVI. If you ask her where Pope Benedict is at any given time, she will reel off his schedule in minute detail as if she were paid to be his personal assistant. She knows her way around the Vatican web site better than anyone else alive, probably even the webmaster. And she changes the desktop picture on her computer daily to different scenes in the current life of the pope. If you want to know what the pope is up to you can either ask this tenacious nun or check her desktop.

It is due to Sr. Mary Joan's persistence that I have begun to read the pope’s homiles and Wednesday audiences more regularly. She even lent me his autobiography Milestones which I began warily and ended up not being able to put down. Our pope is amazing - humble and very straightforward, and not a tinge of self-righteousness or pride, (which I must say is particularly amazing in a man of such brilliance). It is said that when he writes he quotes the early Church Fathers without looking it up and it is only checked by an assistant after he is finished. I may very soon become the vice president of Sr. Mary Joan’s B16 fan club.

Sr. Mary Joan’s cooking skills are celebrated in convent and even in the greater St. Louis area. When Sr. Mary Joan does not cook pasta on her cooking day the postulants lament and wail as if present for the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. At our benefit dinner last year two people paid $600 just for the opportunity to eat her cooking. She never looks at a recipe, makes meatballs by the hundreds, and even prepares her tiramisu with decaf (blasphemy!) just for me so I won't stay up for hours cursing the enticing lure of tiramisu long into the night.

She is even responsible for some rather amazing miracles - reuniting an adopted son with his birth family in Italy for one. For more of this amazing story, check it out here.

Sr. Mary Joan has a true Pauline heart, being one of the first missionary sisters to bravely accept an assignment to the United States at the young age of 23. She knew no one and did not speak a word of English. When asked if she was homesick she responds, "I came here in obedience to God and my congregation so I could not regret it." She passes on the charism of our spiritual family simply by being her. Every once in a while she will casually mention the founder of our congregation Blessed James Alberione. When she does, all of the postulants eyes grow big and we carefully act like we are not too interested so she will not get embarrassed by our star struck faces and stop telling us stories.

Flowers at the Jubilee Celebration
Some have the notion that as religious sisters get older, they just get sweeter, more naïve, and less in touch with reality. I'll admit I had this fear in the back of my mind and wondered if religious life would make me into some kind of Stepford nun. But meeting Sr. Mary Joan has assured me that religious life does not make a person any less unique, spunky, and alive. She has shown me that a good religious can keep the fire of a good disciple of Jesus alongside the quiet gentleness of someone who has allowed their soul to be transformed by a life of loving Jesus in the Eucharist.

Sr. Mary Joan recently celebrated 60 years of religious life. Many of our friends came to celebrate her life and her long dedication to the Pauline work of evangelization through the media. We all hope and pray that her life will continue to give glory to God, and we will be able to enjoy her pasta and meatballs for many more years to come.

Congratulations Sr. Mary Joan. We all love you more than you can imagine.

Peace to all of our friends in this joyful season,