Sister Louise Alff, OSF, shared the following reflection at the Jubilee Mass for men and women religious which took place at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo on April 23. The Mass is in honor of those celebrating significant anniversaries in religious life.
It's not uncommon, when we hit a milestone in our lives, (25, 50, 60, 70, 75 years) to go back and recapture some of the highlights of our ministry. In doing so, I recalled an incident that occurred very early on in my ministry. I was a very young sister, and quite full of myself. I was working in a parish in the Black Rock part of the city.
Sitting in my office one day, one of my second-graders came into my room with a fist full of dandelions. Assuming they were for me, I said, "Oh David, are those for me?" "Oh no Sister" he said, "these are for God" and he put his head up and circled around saying, "if only I could find Him." If only I could find God. I doubt if there is a person in this church who hasn't said that at one time or another.
Just as people have helped us to "find God" so too, we have assisted others on that quest. I don't know what your ministries have been in the past or are in the present, but whether it be in health care, education, social work, direct works of mercy, community service within your order, prayer ministry, missionary work or spiritual direction, we all share the same calling: to help people find God.
So how do we help people find God? Or more correctly, how do we help people realize that God has already found them? When it does happen, my guess is that it wasn't what we said that helped them to see the presence of God, but rather who we are.
And who are we? Pope Francis, in his homily on Feb 2, 2016, as he closed the year of consecrated life, said that we religious are men and women of three things: encounter, wonder and gratitude.
Encounter: Here I speak to everyone in the church for this encounter is more than a casual meeting but a meeting of souls, where the spirit of one touches the spirit of another and because of that, nothing is ever the same. It often results in close friendships, deepening of family ties or even the choice of spouses.
This encounter has been experienced by everyone in this church for we all have the presence of the divine within us. In the book of Genesis it says, "and the Lord God breathed divine life into them." God's greatest desire is to meet us in the messiness of life and allow God to walk with us.
This isn't reserved just for religious. In the apostolic letter, "The Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis said, "I invite all people to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting God encounter them."
For us religious, I also speak of an encounter with God that changed the direction of our lives. This encounter invited us to leave our homes, families, and friends. In this encounter we offered to God our lives as a gift to the universal Church. This encounter is so strong that we carry its power to daily transform us, even after 25, 50, 60, 70 and 75 or 80 years.
The power of this encounter leads us to be women and men of wonder. A wonder that makes us reflect on God's blessings, a wonder that gives us the grace to begin each day anew, a wonder that gives us the courage to pick up the broken pieces knowing that God can make all things whole again. A wonder that knows that the cross is not the end. A wonder that sits by a tomb believing that Resurrection will happen again. A wonder that makes our initial encounter as fresh as the day we heard it.
This then leads us to the virtue of gratitude. The Welsh poet, George Herbert once said, "thou has given so much to me ... give one thing more - a grateful heart."
In the book, "Traits of a Healthy Spirituality" the author says, "Grateful people see connections and they trace their blessings back far enough to their ultimate source and give thanks." Our ultimate source is God who planted the seed of our vocation within us.
Who are we? We are consecrated women and men of encounter, wonder, gratitude: with the fire of these realities in our being, the Christ within has the power to ignite a fire in the hearts of those who seek God. It is not dependent on work, mission or service, rather it is who we are and the reverence we show to others.
The great poet Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
In the December issue of the Western New York Catholic there was an article about the Sisters of Social Service. In that article, Sister Magdalen, the assistant general moderator for the order said: "eventually all works, all accomplishments, will come to an end. Everything we've built, created, established will eventually cease. The real reason for rejoicing is the reality that lies beyond the works. The fact that while we were doing these works we allowed God's mercy to come and cover us in love."
In the book, "Alice in Wonderland," Alice says: "I knew who I was this morning, but I've changed a few times since then."
I knew who I was when I entered religious life, but I've changed many times since then. Look at the pictures of yourself when you entered, look at yourself now. Waist may have expanded, we now put our eyes (glasses) on the nightstand, our ears (hearing aids) in the drawer and our teeth in a glass, but what should never change and indeed get stronger as we age is the encounter with Christ, the wonder of this encounter and the gratitude for our vocation.
If nourished and strengthened daily, God will continue to use us to speak to the David's in our world who are so desperately searching for God.
Footnote: I met David again 25 years later. As he came toward me he was holding a dozen roses and he said to me, "Sister, this time these flowers are for you."