Labyrinth Love

In his welcome to new parents last week, the president of St. Olaf College noted that no new or renovated buildings are opening this year but a labyrinth had been installed next to the chapel, which immediately piqued my interest. I have long loved labyrinths, and they feature prominently in my spiritual birth preparation book and programs.  That instant I determined to walk the new labyrinth during my brief time at St. Olaf.  We had driven the 740 miles from Cincinnati to Northfield, MN, to deliver our youngest child for his freshman year, a momentous rite of passage that simultaneously elicits excitement and fear, joy and grief. The emotions of this transition were heightened by our oldest’s post-college move to Chicago and our daughter’s foray to Africa for a semester abroad — all occurring within the same week as this dropoff.  A labyrinth walk at least would feel familiar.

IMG_0313[1]Turns out I had never seen a labyrinth like this one before! Set among a shady grove of trees in a green triangle between the art building, theater building, and chapel (closest to chapel and accessed from that side), its gravel-lined walking path is bordered by flat stones. But unusually, mounds of earth planted with grasses, shrubs, and mosses define the pathways. The effect is like stepping into a lush forest. Campus activity fades into the background. On Saturday afternoon a brief window of time opened between move-in and info sessions to walk the labyrinth. On the way in, I set my intention for Christian, and for all of us, in this time of definitive transition.

Upon reaching the center, a a wide copper bowl filled with rocks covered by water inspired a spontaneous ritual. Crouching down, I immersed my hands in the water for a few moments and then made IMG_0317[1]the sign of the cross on my forehead, lips, and heart. Now what to do with wet hands?  I stood to face out to the campus away from the chapel and flung drops of water all around to bless this place where my baby will reside, that he would grow and learn and thrive, then concluded by anointing my face and arms with the remaining droplets. On the walk out, I just rested in the experience and listened for wisdom; hopefulness and peace prevailed.

The labyrinth symbolism continues to percolate for me since returning home. I find it’s rather apt as the twists and turns of the labyrinth can confuse when you’re walking its path, but there really is an overall pattern even when you can’t see it. The presence of plants and grasses along with the brick, gravel, and rocks particularly spoke to me of newness and growth. So I created a portable version in the foyer of our home, a reminder in my daily comings and goings of the larger pattern of life. 

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Dog Day and Discernment

IMG_0100[1]Eleven years ago today, also a Friday, we adopted our dog, Carly, from a shelter.  On our first visit to the shelter several days earlier to scope out possible dogs, we had spent time with Carly as well as a hound mix named Luke. Departing, the family was divided with some wanting Carly and one child in particular strongly preferring Luke. Not knowing how in the world this could be resolved without incurring serious sibling conflict and accusations of parental favoritism, I heard myself say, “The Holy Spirit will tell us what dog to adopt.” I had no idea what I meant by this, but it did defuse some tension.  And I really wanted to trust that the necessary wisdom would arise.

When we returned on Aug. 15, Luke was outside in an enclosed yard, happily playing with another dog. We proceeded inside to the kennel areas where the dogs were visible through glass windows. Carly was sitting on a blanket, reclined, but head up.  The instant she saw us, her ears perked up in immediate recognition, and she looked directly into my eyes with such hopeful eagerness, expressing so clearly it was as though she’d spoken aloud: “Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go!” I nearly choked up, the communication felt that palpable.  Joe and the kids were aware of it too, and we took her home that day.

We love to recollect this experience. It evokes the special bond we all feel for our dog. “Remember how Carly looked up at you, Mom?”  But today I’m marveling that 11 years ago a remark that I tossed off in part just to mitigate conflict actually did convey a valuable message about discernment.

Listen.  Notice.  Trust.

And it stuck! “The Holy Spirit will tell us . . .” evolved over the years into a mantra for faith in the face of confusion or uncertainty that the still, small voice would be heard.  It became particularly relevant regarding college selection. I remember many conversations weighing the pros and cons of each potential school but without full knowledge for a final decision just yet – waiting for the acceptance letter or the scholarship award or the second visit.  Finally the discussion would wrap up with a casual, “Well, the Holy Spirit will tell what college to choose.”

These memories provide a timely reminder as we approach big changes. Over the next two weeks, each of our children will embark on a major adventure – Christian, the youngest, to his freshman year of college in Minnesota; our daughter, Kieran, to a semester of study in Africa; and Michael, recent college graduate, to Chicago for independent life and work. Joe and I (and Carly!) will remain here in unfamiliar circumstances.  Excitement and anxiety are in the air!

The Holy Spirit will guide us on the path. 

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Perspective

IMG_20130710_120938This summer my Wednesday afternoon volunteering at the Bond Hill Pantry became irregular due to travel and other commitments, and I was glad to return yesterday.  I pretty much give the same spiel each time I accompany a client through the pantry. “You have three choices in vegetables, which are both of these shelving units.  There are different items in each . . .”

Then we proceed through grains, home care, non-meat protein, fruit, and “combo” before coming to the personal care section. With my first client yesterday, as usual I said, “This bag has toilet paper and soap, and you can choose one additional item – shampoo, deodorant, lotion, shaving supplies, or toothpaste.”  Suddenly I really heard what I was saying as though for the first time.  You have one selection among these ordinary products. Even though people shave, brush teeth, wash hair, and wear deodorant daily, choose only one form of hygiene.  A sobering reminder yet again of how need outstrips resources.

Later I went through with a mom who is a regular patron and a particularly warm and dignified person. Two of her children had come along, boys about 10 and 12 years old.  They had never been to the pantry before, and the older one was clearly fascinated.  Girls about his age were staffing the dessert table; as we turned from there to the main shelves he immediately wanted to know, “How old do you have to be to work here?”  I explained that young people often volunteer with their parents or other adults, and he could speak to the coordinators if he is interested.  As we continued on, this young man marveled at the shelves and pointed to different items, at one point exclaiming, “This is like a little store!”

Is the glass half full or half empty?  Yes!

 

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#FaithFeminisms — Questioning

This post is written for a synchroblog on faith and feminism underway through July 25. Originally I hoped to link a previous piece to the synchroblog site and be done with it,
but . . . I discovered that feminism is not a topic I’ve addressed explicitly in nearly four years of blogging, hardly surprising I suppose since “feminism” is maligned by much of the Catholic Church. Yet I have always considered myself a feminist, and for me that means asking questions.

Why are things the way they are? 

4314134817_79ed3af337_nWhen I was in 5th grade at a Catholic parochial school in 1973, I was one of a group of girls who wrote a letter to then-Archbishop Bernardin asking why we couldn’t be altar servers. We had raised this question to our teacher, and to her credit she suggested and assisted with the letter.  To the archbishop’s credit, he at least wrote back, explaining that it was largely a matter of tradition. Although the content of his answer was unsatisfying, I still remember the kindness of its tone, which now seems rather quaint in contrast to my 2014 experience writing to our present archbishop, which received no response of any kind.

The “big bang” question of my life arose in my early 30s, after I had given birth to our older two children, when my husband and I visited a hospice for the first time.  We had been blessed to receive skilled, nurturing care from midwives during pregnancy and birth, which impacted us so positively.  Following the hospice visit I remarked to Joe that it
IMG_0261[1]reminded me of the midwives because the care was so personalized, the dying process was
treated as a normal part of life, and support was provided to the whole family.  Suddenly I began to wonder why death and dying receive so much focus in the Christian tradition but normal childbirth none at all.  Of course the reason is obvious — women’s bodies are not valued in traditional theology; in fact, Christianity often treats them as sources of shame or sin. But the questions would not go away!  Giving birth was the most amazing and powerful experience I’d ever had. My body writhed, sweated, moaned, and bled through such intense pain to bring forth a child.  How could this process be anything but holy and awe-inspiring??

How does birth connect with faith?

BookCoverImageMy response to these questions gestated for many years but finally took the form of a book for pregnant women called Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth. Avoiding any romanticizing of birth and with the premise that the bodily process of birth is spiritual, the book draws on Christian symbols and practices and suggests activities to make the body/spirit connection real in an empowering way, for example by working with clay to reflect on the pelvis as a sacred vessel or decorating a birth garment to honor birthing as priestly work.

The holiness of birth can be a tough sell with many feminists though, even in faith settings. At first pass, it’s dismissed as a feminist concern because our culture sees birth only through a medical lens, and so often women have been oppressed by childbearing.  Our churches too have used birthing to relegate women to a separate sphere.  So the tendency is to segment childbirth as a health care issue just for younger women or to regard it only as something to be managed or avoided on the way to real liberation and equality. Often I must persuade people that this topic is worthwhile.  However, once they read my book or attend a program, they get it. The physical/spiritual connection resonates, and they want to go deeper.

I call my initial wondering about childbirth and theology a “big bang” question because nearly two decades later it still reverberates. Like the universe, it’s expanded outward.

Now I’m asking:

How do women image God through birth?

How does our culture’s disregard for birth intersect with rampant violence against women (rape culture, trafficking, pornography, etc)?

How does birth serve as a metaphor for creative endeavors, spiritual growth, or work for justice?

What might I learn from the LGBTQ community and/or women of color that will challenge or enrich my thinking on these matters?

Feminism means asking questions and never giving up on the search for answers.

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Swim Team Spirituality

The summer club swim championships — prelims today and finals tomorrow –have signified a major rite of the season around our house for quite a few years now, the past four through the lens of our oldest son’s coaching role.  But he was a team member for nine years before that, and our other two kids also swam a few seasons, so I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this activity!  As Michael concludes his summer club coaching career, my thoughts circle back to previous swimming posts, partially reprised and updated here.

Power of Community
Although a swim team is hardly a religious activity,  the experience at its best contains elements of a spiritual community because:

People are included.  Team members’ ages range from 5 to 18, and our club is especially blessed also by diversity of race, nationality and family style, yet a swim team’s inclusion goes beyond such categories.  There is room for all abilities, and the newcomer’s personal best is cheered with vigor equal to that of the contender’s first place finish.  Also it’s not
unusual for the occasional swimmer with physical or developmental disability to be IMG_0292celebrated simply for completing the race. In our family’s nearly 15-year involvement with the sport of swimming, I have witnessed these spirited affirmations time and again, but they are not mere gestures to “raise self-esteem.”

People are invited to grow.  Swimming is hard work, and improvement does not come without it.  Day by day coaches ask the swimmers to push their endurance a bit harder, to refine their strokes just a little more.  The nature of the sport is that the athletes work mostly as individuals, yet the results ultimately produce a team outcome, providing additional motivation and significance.  Likewise, swim parents must perform tasks that may be outside their comfort zone such as learning to time races or even officiate meets.  Unlike soccer or basketball, swimming is predicated on parent participation; the competition cannot happen without them.

People become connected to one another
.  For swimmers, sharing early morning practices in cold water or pulling together to win a relay or consoling one another after missing a close touch creates real camaraderie, and for parents too, working together at meets and cheering the progress of each other’s children forges an enduring bond.  Further, parents’ necessary presence at the meets provides a meaningful point of connection with one’s own children through their teen years.

People want to pass it on.  The impact of the swim team experience becomes part of you, and despite its hectic nature, you miss it after the season ends.  Then the next season rolls around, and you’re eager to begin again.  Veteran swimmers and parents both become mentors to new folks, instructing them how to read a heat sheet and other helpful tips, paying forward the help they received at the beginning.

God in All Things
As a tribute to the coaches, one year a team mom asked swimmers to write down something they wished to thank them for, which she then consolidated into a poem of sorts that was read aloud at the team banquet by some of the younger kids.  It was quite striking what swimmers of all ages expressed gratitude for:  Thank you for pushing me.  Thank you for believing I could do it even when I didn’t.  Thank you for teaching me SwimChampCoachhow to do butterfly.  Thanks for encouraging me when I was tired.  In other words, Thank you for expecting something of me and then being there to help me accomplish it. Out of the blue, a surprising thought surfaced – Is this how God wants to relate to us?  Is God pacing the pool deck of our lives, fists in the air, shouting “Yes!!” when we believe and do, or “Race!!!” when we’re ready to give up? Athletics are not really my milieu, so I’m regularly surprised by the piercing quality of this image as it arises, always unexpectedly, when inadequacy or fear threaten.

This is all Good News.

 

 

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All Are Welcome

A phrase our son uses to describe feeling understood by another is “He ‘gets’ me.” This weekend I attended the biennial conference of a national Christian feminism group, and that’s exactly how I felt.

“They ‘get’ me.”

These three short words connote an expansive sense of acceptance and safety that is almost not fully grasped except by contrast to other situations, increasingly common in church circles, where one finds it necessary to restrain free expression of opinion on charged topics like women’s leadership, feminine imagery for the divine, or LGBTQ inclusion.

IMG_0133[1]Here’s how their website describes the organization: The Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (also known by its “doing business as” name, Christian Feminism Today, or EEWC-CFT) is a Christian feminist organization with a long history of working for gender equality. EEWC welcomes members of any gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, color, creed, marital status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, age, political party, parental status, economic class, or disability. Our biennial conferences sustain our spiritual connectedness and foster our learning about critical Christian feminist issues.

My experience of welcome, connection, and learning aligns completely with this description.

Plenary speakers included Sharon Groves of the Human Rights Campaign, Mary Hunt of Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual; and EEWC co-founder Letha Dawson Scanzoni, whose ground-breaking works include All We’re Meant to Be and Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?. Just as significantly, the agenda also featured three students presenting their own scholarly work on topics related to women and Christianity.  Their energy and enthusiasm were a highlight of the weekend.

Each day began with singing, many selections the work of Jann Aldredge-Clanton. Her songs present amazing and beautiful inclusive imagery, and I can’t wait to incorporate hymns like “Midwife Divine is Bringing Life to Birth” and “Wisdom, Sophia, Joins in Our Labor” into my birth retreats!

Author Susan Cottrell shared reflections on parents responding to their LGBTQ children coming out.  We over-complicate the matter, she suggests; God speaks to us through our heart, and that’s the voice to heed. She and her husband have launched a ministry called Freed Hearts as an outreach to parents.

The feeling of “they get me” actually surfaced a few weeks prior to the conference when a group member posted an incredibly insightful review of my book on the EEWC site. Though I had never met or interacted with the reviewer, she responded not only to the book’s direct content but also its broader purpose:  “Embodying the Sacred allowed me to dream of a time when we go a step further yet and see gathered believers together embracing Conway’s wise insights into pregnancy and laboring, letting God speak through flesh and blood women and their partners who are experiencing it rather than talking about it abstractly and poetically every once in a while. I dream of a time when we hear the justice and power issues that are revealed, as well as recognizing the divine who comes into us and meets us as a baby.”

At the conference my experience of welcome included the opportunity to present a workshop on birth and spirituality based on my book. I felt so blessed by the attentive listening and reflective response I received from the participants.  They “got” me!

Who “gets” you? 

Where are the places that you feel understood and authentic?

EEWCGathering2014

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Offering of Letters

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to speak at mass about my experience volunteering at a food pantry in relation to the annual letter writing campaign of Bread for the World, and below is the text of my appeal.  If you would like to write to your Congressional representatives and Senators to advocate legislative solutions to hunger, click here.  Find your representatives here and Senators here.  More information about Bread for the World is available at their organization website.  Email me at pegconway@gmail.com if you’d like to learn more about the Cincinnati chapter of this national group.

I’m here today to ask for your participation in the Bread for the World Offering of Letters, right after mass.  Tables will be set up in the narthex where you’ll write brief letters to Congress based on suggested text.  It’s a direct and easy way to advocate legislative solutions to hunger. 

I have been blessed the past two years to volunteer on Wednesday afternoons at the Bond Hill Food Pantry at Church of the Resurrection Catholic Church, just off Reading Road a short distance north of here. It is a place of true hospitality where an eclectic group of volunteers and clients together create a community. 

IMG_20130710_120938As I guide people through the pantry, in a certain way it’s like being at the grocery store.  There are shelves of canned vegetable and fruits, laundry soap, soups, etc. and we fill brown grocery bags with their selections.  But no matter how warm the welcome we extend, the underlying reality is that our clients come because they don’t have enough to eat.  A number of them are employed but can’t make ends meet.  Many are elderly or disabled.  They wait in line to get inside the pantry, then to be checked in, and then to shop.  Many do not have their own transportation and must seek help getting their groceries home.  They may only visit the pantry once per month, and they must live in the geographic area we serve.  When I’m putting items in my own cart at Kroger, I am aware of the plenty that I enjoy by comparison, and it bothers me that so many lack food.  The need is great and growing, not just in Bond Hill but everywhere. 

That is why I am asking you to take a few minutes this morning to ask members of Congress to prioritize and protect programs vital to hungry people in the United States and around the world.  Today’s Offering of Letters emphasizes two potential reforms. First, Bread for the World proposes pragmatic reforms to U.S. international food aid programs, such as purchasing relief food closer to the crisis situation from local farmers and ensuring more nutritious relief food for young children and pregnant women. Second, the letters highlight the negative effects of recent cuts to the food stamp, or SNAP, program, which affect many families by $50-$100 per month. It’s been estimated that to make up for these cuts, churches and charities would have to increase their current food assistance by nearly 10 times. That is an overwhelming prospect for any pantry. 

Please take a few minutes in the narthex after mass to write letters on behalf of the hungry.  All parish letters will be delivered directly to our legislators. Please also consider making a financial contribution to Bread for the World to support their faith-based hunger advocacy work.  Collection boxes are located at the chapel exits.  And finally, if you feel inspired to get involved in a pantry, signups are available in the narthex to volunteer at several pantries where parishioners are involved. 

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Called by Name

What’s in a name?

Twice in the past month we have sat among hordes of beaming family and friends in crowded arenas, eagerly listening for our child’s name to be called in the time-honored ritual of graduation.  Such events can go by in a blur, so I’m grateful to my friend Laura over at the Mothering Spirit blog for reminding me that names matter.  Her post took me back to the days of poring over name books, choosing and discarding possibilities until clarity emerged. We never told anyone our choices until the child arrived, partly because we wanted to confirm that the name still felt right once we met him or her and partly because we didn’t want to hear any critiques.  People seemed less likely to comment on a name once given to the baby in our arms as compared to hearing a name for someone not yet born.  Joe and I also agreed that we both had to feel completely comfortable and good about our selections; there could be no ambivalence on either side about something with lifelong significance.

Christian Joseph Conway
Last week our third child became our final high school graduate. By the time he was expected, we were a little stumped for mutually acceptable boys’ names not already taken by close friends and family. We also had added requirements for a saint’s name and a name with family resonance, so the bar was high.  We liked “Christian” paired with his dad’s name in the middle but weren’t sure there was a saint by that name. No Google search available then, so we purchased a paperback Oxford Dictionary of Saints that had an entry for a 12th century Irish St. Christian, who was a Cistercian monk, abbot and bishop though few other facts of his life are known.  That’s not a problem for our Christian. He charts his own path.

Kieran Eileen Conway
Our middle child and only daughter is now halfway through college. When we were discerning her name, friends loaned us a name book that had been purchased in Ireland, and we liked the sound of “Kieran,” rather blithely overlooking the fact that it’s actually a boy’s name.  Ireland has at least two 6th century saints by this name with varied spellings.  One was an abbot known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland for his work in setting up monasteries, and the other was a bishop.  We especially liked naming our daughter after a bishop!  Her middle name is that of a dear aunt on Joe’s side.  Kieran was only a few hours old when I briefly wondered if we had been too adventurous in our naming; every time I said her name, I’d had to spell it. By the time she was two, when someone asked her name, with complete poise and confidence she would say “Kieran, K-I-E-R-A-N, Kieran”– like a spelling bee.  She knows who she is!

Michael Jennings Conway
Our new college graduate’s name was long a favorite one for both Joe and me, and it pretty much chose us right from the start.  This preference never wavered even when our  nephew was given this name only a few months before our son arrived. It’s my older brother’s name, and it’s the name of Joe’s great-grandfather who came from Ireland.  The middle name is my Irish paternal grandmother’s maiden name, which adds a bit of distinctiveness to an otherwise common sounding name.  Though many people of their own volition call him “Mike,” I never, ever do so.  A biblical name, in Hebrew “Michael” means “Who is like God?” – a rhetorical question since no one is like God.  In the Book of Revelation, Michael the archangel leads heaven’s armies.  As these associations suggest, our Michael is a person of strength and determination.

So what’s in a name?  History and origins, and calling to the future.

 

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Faithful Departed

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

When I was a child, certain family friends always added the above prayer on to the typical Catholic meal time grace, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.” Eventually we adopted the practice also, and it was fun to “surprise” guests who were not expecting this extra phrase after the usual grace.  I brought the custom into our marriage, so our children have grown up with it as well.  For most of my life I said it by rote, but including prayer for the dead at meal time has taken on real significance over the past few years, particularly since my mother-in-law’s death in 2010 and then my dad’s in 2013.  Whenever someone dies — whether close to us, an acquaintance, or someone prominent — having this built-in remembrance provides a type of solace.  We don’t have to think about it or plan anything; the words are already there, habitual.  And so tonight I made this small offering of prayer for Brogan Dulle, the young Cincinnati man found dead after having been missing for 8 days.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. 

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Prayer for Graduates

The prayer below touched me very much at the conclusion of our son’s graduation from Loyola University Chicago as part of the university president’s blessing.  He acknowledged the parents and invited us to stand and extend our arms over the graduates as we recited it together, a gesture so familiar from years of RCIA rites during mass at our parish yet unexpected in this setting.  I have written before about the importance of marking transitions with conscious gestures, and this moment provided such an opportunity.

Prayer for Our Graduates

May God bless you and sustain you
on this your graduation day.

May the Creator of this vast universe
keep you safe as you go forth
from this place that has nourished your mind
and your soul.

May the Almighty look down upon you and give you
success in all your endeavors,
courage in all your struggles and challenges,
understanding in all that is new to you,
wisdom to choose what is right and do what is good,
perseverance in all you undertake,
serenity and peace in the knowledge that
you are not alone, that you are loved.

May the Lord of All look kindly upon you
this day and forever.

Amen.

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