Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Lessons from Europe: A Culture of Encounter

There I was, sporting the signs of a typical North American: Coffee in a to-go cup. Laptop open. Headphones plugged in, tuning out the rest of the world so I could focus on meeting tight deadlines. Game face on, I was implicitly communicating to everyone around me: "This woman means business. Do. Not. Interrupt."

But someone interrupted me, and, in hindsight, I'm glad he did. He reminded me that there was another way to live other than this mechanized way of operating.

A photo I took while on vacation in Italy.
The sugar package is ON POINT. 

THE ENCOUNTER

I was initially quite shocked when a young man, my age, pulled up a chair and sat with me (hardly giving me a chance to fully consent). After introducing himself, he blatantly said: "I am talking to you because I want to make friends."

He explained that he was originally from Italy, but he was here in Vancouver to study English for a semester. Turns out he'd picked the right person to converse with, because I had JUST recently returned from a vacation in Italy and Spain. Since I was experiencing massive Europe withdrawals, I gave him a shot, removed my headphones, and listened to his story.

As cliche as it sounds, he was the stereotypically boisterous, expressive, and energetic Italian with a zest for life. And sadly, I could tell that his experience in North America was squashing his spirit. He was restrained. He wanted to be free, but he felt like he couldn't be.

We launched into a really interesting conversation about cultural differences between Europe and North America. He expressed that life here was too structured compared to what he was used to -- here we all stuck to our schedules with so much rigidity, waking up, eating, studying, working, and sleeping, all at fixed, appointed times -- while he was accustomed to flexibility, to studying at 2 AM, and having unplanned fun once in a while.

He said it was so hard for him to make friends here, because everyone always kept to themselves (he once got kicked out of a section on campus for being too talkative, in which he humorously exclaimed, "I can't help it, I'm ITALIANO!"). He said there seemed to be a resounding fear in North America, a fear of strangers (to be honest, I was quite afraid when he first approached HAHA). It was as if everyone here just wanted their space, to draw boundaries. He said there was too much importance placed on first impressions and not enough room for real human interaction.

Sadly, I couldn't agree more.

MY REFLECTIONS ON EUROPE

Truth be told, he basically articulated exactly how I felt returning home from my vacation in Spain and Italy. I thought I was going crazy, that I was the only one who noticed these things, but his input brought me affirmation.

I love traveling because it gives you perspective. It makes you realize how great things are back home, how much you've taken for granted. And it also makes you question whether the "North American" way of doing things really is the "best way". It definitely isn't the "only" way. It can be scary yet exciting to acknowledge other ways of thinking beyond what you grew up with.

I'm not denigrating the quality of life here in North America, because it's great. I especially love living in Vancouver. There are certain things we enjoy here that can't be enjoyed in many other places on this planet. And it's also not to say that EVERYONE living in North America falls under the category of what I just described. However, the man I encountered today had a point.

Maybe the fast-paced, overly structured, individualistic society we live in isn't always the most conducive to fostering social, emotional, and mental wellness. Maybe there is something problematic about this mechanized way of living that prioritizes work/duties over people/relationships. Maybe we do need to take breaks from our rigid schedules once in a while to allow for spontaneous encounters. Maybe there really is another way to live, one that gives us more permission to be human and less machine-like.

A CULTURE OF ENCOUNTER

I've come to realize that sometimes I can be the epitome of a North American-bred person. It scares me how rigid, mechanical, and task-oriented I can be. I cherish the encounters I have with others, but sometimes I can be so guarded, so afraid to let people into my private spaces -- and to step into theirs. Yet I know that all human souls long for connection, for genuine encounters. In fact, it's what we're called to do.

Pope Francis spent quite a bit of time calling forth a Culture of Encounter. Perhaps we'll come to find that genuine encounters with other people will be the soothing balm to our souls, the way that God wants to heal us -- and that he wants to do the same for others through us.



Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Fruits of Singlehood

There's a lot of emphasis on vocation as either 'married life' or 'religious/consecrated life', or an emphasis on vocation as being something off into the future -- which it is. But our vocation is also active here and now, and the one vocation that all people are required to go through first is singlehood. 

We tend to overlook this crucial period of our lives as the dreaded 'default setting' (which is true), but it's also a called a 'vocation' for a reason: it's a calling. We may not be called to singlehood for the rest of our lives, but we're undeniably called to it at one point of our lives. It serves a purpose that, to God, is so important that no one can skip it. 

And I'm beginning to realize the fruits of singlehood. 

Like many people, I, too, yearn for intimacy, love, and connection in the deepest way. And like many others, I, too, have come across opportunities in my life where I "almost" had that with another person. I say "almost" because it didn't quite get that far -- and for good reason, as I'm realizing in hindsight.

6 months have passed since our mutual decision to leave things as "almost". Yet to have my co-op advisor say I looked more confident than I did 6 months ago -- after 6 months of no longer having a security blanket over me, after 6 months of dealing with the natural sense of "loss" that came from letting go of someone I really care(d) about -- surprised the heck out of me. It made me reflect on life like hadn't in a long time. 

I can't deny that "loss" was an accurate description for how I felt, but it was not an accurate description for what was actually happening in my life. I'd been so focused on living, I forgot to take note of how much progress I've made in 6 months. And now I know:

If this was truly loss, why was I crossing major things off my Bucket List? If this was loss, why was I taking on positive opportunities that once scared the heck out of me? If this was loss, why was I re-connecting with important people in my life? If this was loss, why was I falling in love with certain activities I once lost passion for? If this was loss, why was I learning more about the movements in my heart with regards to a career? If this was loss, why did I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I had in a long time? If this was loss, why was I falling more in love with Love Himself? 

I am beyond grateful that in allowing myself to 'lose' such an important part of my life, God has opened the doors to so many others. 

THE POINT?

What I'm trying to say is: singlehood is NOT a default setting that one remains in when all other doors are locked. It's a period of life that is flooded with opportunity. So treasure it. Make the most out of it. It's God's gift to you, and your gift to the world. 

I can confidently say that right now, I am exactly where I need to be. Right now, singlehood is my vocation. It may not be that way a year or so from now, but at present, it is. And, to my surprise, I am actually excited. 

Wherever you are in life, own it. 


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Monday, 4 May 2015

Do Your Challenges Propel You or Prevent You?

I wanted to share with you a letter written by Canadian national hero, Terry Fox, with the hopes of getting Adidas to sponsor his footwear for the Marathon of Hope. 
If you're not familiar with Terry Fox, he was a man who chose to raise funds for cancer research by running across the entire country of Canada, despite having an amputated leg as a result of his own cancer. This was called the Marathon of Hope. 
I found his letter to Adidas (below) particularly inspiring, as I'm sure you'll see for yourself. I won't write too much because I believe the letter speaks for itself as well. Here it is. 
---------------------------------
November 3, 1979
Dear Sir/Madame: 
My name is Terry Fox, I am 21 years old, and I am an amputee. I lost my right leg above the knee two and a half years ago due to cancer. 
The night before my amputation, a former basketball coach brought me a magazine with an article on an amputee who ran in the New York Marathon in it. It was then when I decided to meet this new challenge head on and not only overcome my disability, but conquer it in such a way that I could never look back and say it disabled me. But I soon realized that that would only be half my quest, for as I went through the 16 months of the physically and emotionally draining ordeal of chemotherapy, I was rudely awakened by the feelings that surrounded and coursed throughout the cancer clinic. There were the faces with the brave smiles, and the ones who had given up smiling. There were the feelings of hopeful denial, and the feelings of despair. My quest would not be a selfish one. I could not leave knowing these faces and feelings would still exist, even though I would be set free from mine. Somewhere the hurting must stop… and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause. 
I feel now is the time to make good my promise. I have been training for over 8 months, running on an artificial leg. Starting with ½ mile, I have now worked up to 15 miles a day, adding a half mile weekly. 
At first the going was extremely difficult, as I was facing chronic ailments foreign to runners with two legs, in addition to the common physical strains felt by all dedicated athletes. But these problems are now behind me as I have either out-persisted or learned to deal with them. I feel strong not only physically, but more important, emotionally. Soon I will be adding one full mile each week, and coupled with the weight training I have been doing three times a week, by April next year I will be ready to achieve something that for me was only a distant dream reserved for the world of miracles; to run across Canada to raise money for the fight against cancer. 
The running I can do, even if I have to crawl every last mile. But there are some barriers I cannot overcome alone. I need your help, your sponsorship, to help provide the means to sustain myself and two others that have consented to put aside those 5 months to be my companions and aides. We will be needing transportation to Newfoundland, a camper-type vehicle to meet us there ... 
If you could just sponsor us for the footwear, it would be more than appreciated and would take a great financial burden off our backs. If you would also like to provide your sponsorship for any other expenditures for the trip, you are most welcome to, as we need as much help as we can get. 
Please, consider my plea carefully and notify me if you come to any decisions, good or bad. My number is listed below and I can be reached or a message can be left any time during the day.
We need your help. The people in caner clinics all over the world need people who believe in miracles. I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not saying that this will initiate the definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.
Yours Sincerely,
Terry Fox
---------------------------------
THE POINT?
Terry Fox exemplifies someone who chose to find meaning in his suffering. 
He took a circumstance that would prevent him from living an ordinary life and used it to live an extraordinary one. In the face of suffering, he didn't throw up his hands in defeat and say, "What's the point?" Instead, he found his point, right there, on his sickbed -- the direction for which to propel himself, his newfound purpose. 
As a result, he went from being a 'victim' to a 'hero'. Today, the Terry Fox Run, which originated from the Marathon of Hope, is the largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research in the world and is celebrated in over 60 countries. Not bad eh? 
WHAT'S YOUR STORY?
Now it comes down to you. How will YOU find meaning in your suffering? Will you choose to let it propel you or prevent you? 


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Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Kintsugi Heart

Kintsugi (金継ぎ) is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. Rather than gluing the pieces back together in a way that conceals the cracks, Kintsugi makes the cracks even more visible by filling them with lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. This results in a metallic design that runs across the surface of the pottery, making it look even more beautiful than before it was broken.

The philosophy behind Kintsugi is that objects don't need to be thrown away because they are broken; nor must their brokenness be hidden. Rather, brokenness is embraced as simply part of an object's life. The significance of an object does not fade just because it's been broken.

The same philosophy applies to us. Our value does not decrease because we are broken. In fact, sometimes brokenness is required to live lives that are fully surrendered to God. Sometimes the road to falling more in love with God means letting our hearts be broken first.

God never said it would be easy. "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23). | "... Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24) | "Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:35)

See... We can't fall more in love with God until we fall out of love with whatever isn't, first and foremost, Him.

Everything we've built our lives upon, everything we've sought false security in, everything we've gotten far too attached to -- our jobs, our hobbies, our relationships, our plans -- sometimes God will ask us to let go these things. And even if we know it's all for the better, it certainly won't feel that way for the time being. It's going to hurt. It's going to feel like the definition of having a broken heart.

But all that's left is to surrender to this brokenness.

We commonly look at Mary as the model of obedience. But let us not forget that she, too, harboured a broken heart. By witnessing her Son break from the sins of the world, she, too, broke. She allowed herself to. She let it be. She surrendered to the pain and united it with the Lord's because she had knew God's love would triumph. She allowed herself to become so empty so that God, alone, could fill her. And He did.

As part of Mother Teresa's consecration to Mary, she prayed something like this: "Mary, keep me in your most pure heart" and "Mary, lend me your heart." If we, too, want to draw closer to Jesus through Mary by asking her to lend us her heart, then expect to be broken hearted -- because her heart was one that was broken.

Yet, broken as it was, no other heart in this world was able to love Jesus more than hers. No other heart was more united with His than hers. No other heart became as swollen with the Holy Spirit as hers. We have nothing to fear in this brokenness. We have only to hope.

So give God your heart, even if it's in pieces - no, especially if it's in pieces. Give Him the broken shards and He will return it, gluing the pieces back together, not bothering to conceal the cracks but celebrating them, painting them gold -- so that, like Kintsugi, our hearts will be returned to us, even more beautiful than before they were broken.

Beautiful because they were broken.

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Sunday, 4 January 2015

Don't Let Fear of "Not Knowing" Stifle Your Growth

Being okay with "not knowing" has always been difficult for me, as it is for many. There's just something uncomfortable about it. We fear taking risks because we can't foresee the future. We want to be able to plan, to predict, to prepare, and to control. We want to be certain and we want to know. But, obviously, we can't possibly know everything. In some cases, uncertainty is inevitable. 

The same thing also applies to learning. To 'learn' is to acknowledge that we are at a point where we don't know yet (hence the reason for learning). But some of us are so afraid of being beginners, of admitting that we don't know, of looking foolish and making mistakes throughout the learning process, that we actively give up learning altogether. We no longer pursue new challenges out of fear of looking stupid. We choose, instead, to stay in our comfort zones. 

However, Lauryn Hill provides some valuable insights on why "not knowing" is the key to eventually "knowing," and why we shouldn't be afraid of admitting that we haven't reached mastery yet. Here's the clip below ... 



THE POINT?

New situations can be really intimidating -- whether it's hitting the gym for the first time, taking on a new job, re-learning how to enjoy your own company after ending a long-term relationship, or starting a new relationship after relishing your independence. But don't let fear, discomfort, and uncertainty keep you from learning and trying new things. After all, in order to master anything, you must first begin

Don't be afraid to be a beginner again.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas: Joy in the Midst of Suffering

As much as we'd rather sweep things under the rug and hope the sparkle of sequinned dresses and Christmas lights can distract us, the Advent season does not make us immune to stress, pain, mourning, loneliness, illness, and suffering. Life does not suddenly stop throwing curveballs just because its Christmas. No, life keeps on rolling, and many of us find ourselves drowning in a sea of distractions--even if that's the last thing we want.

I wish I could tell you that the pain would go away. I wish I could guarantee that you'd find all the answers to your questions. I wish I could tell you that Christmas would magically heal your illnesses, your brokenness. But I cannot. All I can give you is a reminder of something much deeper, of something that remains true regardless of your circumstances: God loves you

For just this moment, forget your burdens. No, don't forget them, acknowledge them. Feel them, and feel them fully. But in the end, offer them to God.. and read this. 

Below is a letter from Mother Teresa, written to the Missionaries of Charity. I want to share it with you because it speaks of the LOVE that is so central to Christmas, the reason Jesus came down to Earth as a baby in the first place. Read it slowly. Digest every bit of it. Here it is..

LETTER FROM MOTHER TERESA

Jesus wants me to tell you again … how much love He has for each one of you—beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in the chapel—but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus—not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words He speaks to you? Ask for the grace, He’s longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear Him saying “I Thirst” in the hearts of the poor. Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person—not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say “I love you”—impossible. Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe the air. If not, prayer is dead—meditation only thinking. Jesus wants you each to hear Him—speaking in the silence of your heart.

Be careful of all that can block that personal contact with the living Jesus. The Devil may try to use the hurts of life, and sometimes our own mistakes—to make you feel it is impossible that Jesus really loves you, is really cleaving to you. This is a danger for all of us. And so sad, because it is completely opposite of what Jesus is really wanting, waiting to tell you. Not only that He loves you, but even more—He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close. He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy. When not accepted by others, even by yourself sometimes—He is the one who always accepts you. My children, you don’t have to be different for Jesus to love you. Only believe—you are precious to Him. Bring all your suffering to His feet—only open your heart to be loved by Him as you are. He will do the rest.

You all know in your mind that Jesus loves you—but in this letter Mother wants to touch your heart instead. … That is why I ask you to read this letter before the Blessed Sacrament, the same place it was written, so Jesus Himself can speak to you each one.

… His words on the wall of every Missionaries of Charity chapel [“I Thirst”], they are not from the past only, but alive here and now, spoken to you. Do you believe it? If so, you will hear, you will feel His presence. Let it become as intimate for each of you, just as for Mother—this is the greatest joy you could give me. Mother will try to help you understand—but Jesus Himself must be the one to say to you “I Thirst.” Hear your own name. Not just once. Every day. IF you listen with your heart, you will hear, you will understand.

Why does Jesus say “I Thirst?” What does it mean? Something so hard to explain in words—if you could remember anything from Mother’s letter, remember this—“I thirst” is something much deeper than Jesus just saying “I love you.” Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you. Or who He wants you to be for Him.

… Our Lady was the first person to hear Jesus’ cry “I Thirst” with St. John, and I am sure Mary Magdalen. Because Our Lady was there on Calvary, she knows how real, how deep is His longing for you and for the poor. Do we know? Do we feel as she? Ask her to teach … Her role is to bring you face to face, as John and Magdalen, with the love in the heart of Jesus crucified. Before it was Our Lady pleading with Mother, now it is Mother in her name pleading with you—“listen to Jesus’ thirst.” Let it be for each … a Word of life.

How do you approach the thirst of Jesus? Only one secret—the closer you come to Jesus, the better you will know His thirst. ‘Repent and believe,’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent? Our indifference, our hardness of heart. What are we to believe? Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor—He knows your weakness, He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you. He is not bound by time. Whenever we come close to Him—we become partners of Our Lady, St. John, Magdalen. Hear Him. Hear your own name. Make my joy and yours complete.

THE POINT?

While its tempting to focus more on ourselves than on Christ when there is so much suffering in our lives, do NOT let these challenging circumstances keep you from experiencing the REALNESS of God's love ..for you. For you, specifically

The Nativity isn't just a historical event reinacted on the Discovery Channel. It is not just something from the past; it is our present and future. As a priest from my parish constantly says: our hearts are the mangers that Jesus wants to be born in. That is His thirst. 

This Christmas, will you quench it? 

"The magic of Christmas is not in presents but in His presence." MERRY CHRISTMAS! :)

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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Making Peace with the Ordinary Grind of Everyday Life

Sometimes we can grow frustrated with life, wishing we were somewhere else but feeling stuck in the same unglamorous grind of everyday life. Like plot points in a movie, we wish every moment could be jam-packed with excitement, that we could fast-forward and skip over the mundane, ordinary details of day-to-day living -- things that seem so insignificant.

That was my mentality.

I discovered I had a strange fear of the mundane. I wanted everything in my life to be meaningful, to know that every task I did contributed to the betterment of the world or to myself in some way. I felt frustrated or drained if I couldn't see the immediate value in the tasks on my plate, things that seemed to be stripped of anything 'profound' altogether.

But I was wrong. Sometimes the path to holiness is the one that seems to be mundane, the one that looks awfully drenched in ordinariness. As many saints can attest, significance can be found in the seemingly insignificant.

  • "Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." - Mother Teresa
  • "Not all of us can do great things. Only small things with great love." - Mother Teresa
  • "Do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well." - Saint Don Bosco
  • "Our Lord needs from us neither great deeds nor profound thoughts. Neither intelligence nor talents. He cherishes simplicity." - Saint Therese of Lisieux 

I will never forget what a priest once told me. It was something like this: "Stop thinking of your vocation as something that'll just unfold in the future. Your vocation starts now. If you are student, a daughter, a friend, then your vocation right now is exactly that: to be a student, a daughter, a friend -- and do so excellently. The key to the future is the present. Live well in the present. Be faithful in small things, do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well -- that is the pathway to holiness."

As Saint Therese of Lixieux once said, "If I did not simply live from one moment to another, it would be impossible for me to be patient. But I only look at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future."

Think about it: Mother Teresa's life looks epic in hindsight, but it consisted of 'unpleasant' day-to-day activities like cleaning toilet bowls or puss-filled sores of the sick. Saint Don Bosco spent many days simply playing games with children to lead them to holiness. Saint John Paul the Great earned several doctorate degrees, which also meant years of rigorous reading, studying, writing papers, etc. (those of us preparing for midterms/finals right now can totally relate! LOL).

THE POINT?

The point is that these saints (or soon-to-be saints) were not immune to the unattractive, day-to-day grind of everyday life. In fact, they were fully immersed in it. But they were immersed in it for the sake of loving God.

As it says in the book called Imitation of Mary:

  • "The greatest of perfections is to love one's own state and to carry out its obligations, however ordinary they may be."
  • "God wants of us a continuous series of little actions, but you want to do some great ones. The only result, if you follow your own way, is that you will do neither the small nor the great well." 
  • "Manual work and even occupations that are burdensome and irksome cannot distract a spiritual and interior man from union with God ... You can taste [God's] sweetness in any occupation." 
  • "You can become a great saint simply by doing ordinary things, but doing them in no ordinary way." 

It's easy to wonder what our part-time jobs or boring electives have to do with our vocations, but really, they have everything to do with them. The exams that need to be written, the dishes that need to be washed, the difficult customers that need to be dealt with -- all of these mundane details of life can be powerful prayers offered to God.

It's just a matter of remembering Him from day to day, and acknowledging Him ... even in these little things.

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