In Memoriam: Shirley Ann Jenkin

Tags

, , , ,

Yesterday, I found out to my shock that a good friend of mine had passed away several days ago. Although she and I had not spoken in many years, I had always been under the impression that she was one of those people who was extremely robust in their health. Alas, God’s ways are not our ways and Shirley has left us for eternity. In light of all this, I would like to post some reflections and memories that I have of this charming woman.

Shirley was born in Omak, Washington, a small located several hours away from Spokane. She grew up on a farm. Her father was a country doctor. He made frequent visits to the Indians who lived on the reservation. She spent the earliest years of her childhood here and then went on to complete her studies at Washington State University where she completed her bachelor’s degree in 1956. She continued her education at the University of Washington and joined the faculty of Fresno State College (now Fresno State University) in 1963 and returned to Spokane in 1970, where she would spend the next twenty nine years at the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education (ICNE) until her retirement in 1999.

These facts, however, are only the bare bones. As so many of us know, a person is much more complex than his or her career, the places where they have lived, and  the years in which they accomplished various things. Rather, there is always something more that cannot be captured in an obituary. An essence that defies our ability to describe it no matter how hard we try.

If there was one thing that distinguished Shirley from the numerous others that I have known, it would have to be her smile. Her smile was the most contagious thing on the face of the earth. More than anything else, it showed the rest of the world how happy she was even when she wasn’t happy.

Yet this joy was always tempered with a mind that was constantly questioning. As a member of a study group at my old Orthodox parish, Shirley was one of the stalwarts for many years. As the book was read to us by Father, she always had a pencil in her hand with which she would mark the passages of the book that were most interesting to her. Not only that, but she would be willing to ask questions, even thorny ones. Like all good students, she knew how to keep Father and the rest of the members on their toes, but she was always able to do so with grace, kindness, and goodness.

I believe that Shirley’s questioning was something that helped her to embrace the Orthodox faith as wholeheartedly as she did. The reason for this has to do with her background. She told us many times that she was raised in a family where religion was a rather divisive. As a little girl, her Catholic grandmother would take to the local mission church where they would light votive candles in front of statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. As she grew up, she was drawn towards Anglicanism and she remained there until her parish converted en masse to Orthodoxy in 1993.

In the years that I knew Shirley, she was constantly reading all kinds of books. She often told me that the “to read” pile next to her bed grew every couple of days. As far as I know, she devoured every theological and hagiographical book that has ever been printed. Yet I also know that she had a great love for those authors whose works were not strictly religious including C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Books, however, were not her only hobby. She used to crotchet and knit during the study group as well. She made many beautiful quilts and blankets. There were many times when she and Popadea (Father’s wife) would share ideas on cloths and patterns. She put her heart into her crafts and into the beautiful garden that she would frequently talk about. I sense that it was the same with the numerous students that passed through her classes.

Although I did not know Shirley well, I understood that her life was not a bed of roses. She had her own struggles with her ageing mother and often expressed her anxiety about what the future held. However, these worries did not impede her joy rather they made it that much more vibrant.

One of the most interesting things about Shirley is that she taught Sr. Mary Francisca, one of the nuns who was responsible for my conversion to Catholicism. Looking back now, I can see certain parallels between the two of them: they were teachers, they were women of extremely strong conviction, they deeply loved their faith, and they were also women whose joy no one could take away. I suppose that it was that last quality which drew me towards both of them and that I sought this precise quality because I knew that it was a gift which the world could not give.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

Thoughts on St. Therese

Tags

, ,

One of the first Catholics books I ever read was Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux, commonly known as St. Therese the Little Flower.  At that time, I wasn’t able to finish it. It seemed too saccharine and sentimental to me. Having read the lives of St. Anthony the Great and some of the other Desert Fathers, the story of St. Therese wasn’t masculine enough for me. As a matter of fact, it was rather girly.

The years went by, but St. Therese was never far from my mind. Before I converted to Catholicism, I bought a little rosary in honor of St. Therese. I recited it every day for several weeks. At the end, God gave me a sign that I was supposed to go up to the parish priest and ask him to be received into the Church. Unmistakably, the church was decorated with red roses which are St. Therese’s special sign of intercession.

Over the years, I have read many different books about St. Therese. However, there was always something that put me off about her.  I’m not sure what it was or why I didn’t get as much out of books about her as I thought I should. Perhaps, I simply was not ready to read her writings because I wasn’t spiritually prepared for the encounter that I would have with her.

A few days ago, I chanced upon a post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker in which he wrote about his own encounter with St. Therese. Inspired by this, I pulled out a book that I had bought several years ago called My Sister St. Therese. It is a memoir by Sister Genevieve of the Holy Face, St. Therese’s older sister, and contains many stories and quotations from her life as a Carmelite nun.

In reading this rather short book, I suddenly realized that all of those holy cards which depict St. Therese as angelically sweet are dead wrong about the kind of person she was. While she was a sweet person, she was also somebody who realized in the depths of her heart what it meant to bring souls to Christ and how to suffer for them. There are numerous stories about the way in which she swallowed her medicine during her final illness or the fact that she used old postcards and scraps of paper to write her poems because she thought of these things as sacrifices for souls.

There is also another dimension about St. Therese’s spirituality that also struck me.  As I have said numerous times before on this blog, one of my favorite themes to write about is Divine Providence. In the writings of St. Therese, this theme can be found in numerous places. As a matter of fact, her Way of Spiritual Childhood is nothing more than the complete abandonment of one’s self to Divine Providence as an act of selfless oblation and the willingness to do everything for the love of Jesus.

In reading St Therese’s letters and other writings, I am often struck by the depth of her thoughts and ideas. Although she died at the age of twenty four, she had developed well beyond her years. Even if her language is at times sentimental and girly, this is nothing more than a reflection on the time and place in which she spent most of her short life.

It seems to me that all of us should try to reassess St. Therese and try to forget the image on so many statues and holy cards. Although these images are truthful to some extent, they only tell half of the story. The real St. Therese, the Carmelite mystic and the doctor of the Little Way, is someone whom we should really get to know well.

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, pray for us!

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!

The Way, The Truth, and The Life

Tags

, , ,

There are many people who have added their voices to the long-time debate about religion versus spirituality. I think that a recent video posted on Youtube makes that even more apparent. Yet the truth of the matter is that you cannot have religion without spirituality. Allow me to explain.

If one looks at Roman Catholicism, one person sees that there are many different charisms. Each of these charisms is a gift that has been given to a particular person, religious Order, or the Church as a whole institution. For example, the special gift that was given to St. Dominic and the Dominicans is the charism of preaching. Meanwhile, St. John Baptist de La Salle and the Brothers of the Christian Schools have the special charism of teaching.

Delving further into different religious Orders, we find that each of them reflects the spirit of the founder.   For example, St. John Baptist de La Salle was a man who was extremely practical. Reading through his letters, I am consistently astounded by how short they are. He was not long-winded nor did he wish to beat around the bus when he could address problems head on. This same spirit has prevailed among the Brothers of the Christian Schools. They are intensely practical men who seek to find solutions to the problems that they find at their schools.

Each Order, therefore, has a special charism and that charism as well as its reflection n the life of Order is what is called spirituality. For example, we constantly talk about Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, or La Sallian spirituality, but what is the one thing that unites these various world views together? What is the glue that has bound Orders to their founders?

The answer to these questions is simple: the Catholic Church. It was in the Catholic Church and through the working of the Holy Ghost that each of the founders received a particular vocation to found an Order to serve the Church’s needs. They did not sit down and say, “Well, I’m going to solve this problem today and I’m going to be a spiritual person while I do it.” No. Rather, it was God who spoke directly to them and they were pulled by the Spirit to respond to His Call.

Each of us is called by God and each of us has a vocation to discern. Within that vocation, we will find the spirituality that will lead us to Him. Yet it is within the Church that we find these precious gifts. Therefore, you cannot divorce spirituality from religion because there is One Way, One Truth, and One Life.

 

De La Salle and Teaching

Tags

, , ,

As I write this, I have eight more days in Bulgaria until I return to the United States. Two days ago, my contract with the foundation that fed and clothed me for the last ten months officially ran out and this means that I can finally break my silence on the internet as well as write about the experiences that I have had during my stay here

I know this might sound strange, but the foundation I was working for placed great strictures on the content that we could share with the outside world. This mean that if we, myself or other grantees, stated anything contrary to the party line during the course of our contract we would receive the boot. Now that I am no longer under contract, I can write about my experience and not worry about a backlash. Of course, I will not share all of them here on this public forum because there are some that I would like to keep to myself

However, there are some which I feel must be shared because they are part of the big picture.

While living in Bulgaria, I finally became a teacher. I’ve mentioned that I used to work in a tutoring center while I was living in the United States. However, tutoring is not the same thing as teaching although many of the students I worked with mistook it for that. As I always explained to them, the role of the tutor is that of the nurse while that of the teacher is like that of a surgeon. One assists the other to do his work well.

As a teaching assistant in Bulgaria, I was working at a relatively prestigious high school several hours a week. I worked with five different classes of students who were studying English as their main foreign language. Each of these five classes was completely different from the rest. Some of them were characterized by collaboration, while others were much more chaotic. There were some in which the intelligence quota was very high and others where it wasn’t. Yet these differences made the experience that much more rewarding and I can safely tell you that my teaching improved because I had to surf on all kinds of different waves.

Of course, there are many people who see teaching as something that most people take up because they can’t do something else. For example, there is a stereotypical belief that writers who never get themselves published are those that work in MFA and Ph.D. programs. That’s not true at all. The teacher is not someone who does his job because he didn’t make it, but because he got himself sidetracked somewhere along the way and decided that it would be much better to devote himself to the education of young people rather than pursue some other career.

Indeed, teaching is one of the noblest professions that exists. Very few people realize how difficult it is for a teacher to put together one lesson after another on a daily basis or the amount of effort that it takes to implement said lesson. Indeed, there are certain tasks which teachers do that seem thankless and uninteresting. Hours are spent grading papers or preparing lessons. Sometimes, there are hundreds of other little chores that must be attended to before the lesson is taught. Yet all of these things put together are the things that make a teacher a teacher.

Not all teachers, however, are created equal and they are as different as their personalities. Yet all of them feel a desire to impart their knowledge to others so that those others can take it and pass it down from generation to generation. Indeed, learning is a process that is transmitted from person to person even if it is through the medium of a book or an internet blog like this one.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of my patrons, was someone who strongly believed that the mission of a teacher is two-pronged. The first is to mold the mind of the student and to make him well educated. The second is to touch the student’s heart and open him up to God. Neither of these tasks is easy and both of them are equally difficult.

Of course, I did not have to work with the same human material that De La Salle did. I was not sitting in a classroom with two hundred students in 17th century France. Rather, my classrooms consisted of twenty-five to thirty students. Yet there were always those moments when I would be answering a thorny question or looking at the board wondering how not to lose my temper when I would think about that smiling man who is the patron saint of teachers. Sometimes, there would be moments when I would ask him to ask God, “What on earth do you want me to do?”

Of course, abandonment to God’s will is one of the trademarks of De La Salle’s life. My question was one that he constantly asked as he moved towards discovering his vocation as a teacher and found of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Indeed, his openness to God’s will is one of the things that I constantly have to remember as I constantly stumbled down the road towards heaven because I do not know what will be around the bend or what God’s will is. Yet that is true of all teachers for working with humans is not a simple task at all. Instead, there is always that ambiguity and, sometimes, all that you can do with ambiguity is to embrace and ask God that He pull you through the chaos.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

St. John Baptist de La Salle, pray for us!

Letting Go

Tags

Last year, I was doing a lot of writing on another site. I was writing fiction and was posting a new chapter every day. Every morning, I would wake up to find a few comments in my e-mail box. They were positive most of the time, but there were always a few negative ones among them that ran the entire gamut from “Why are you writing” to “This is trash.” However, there was one reviewer who went well beyond the pale and wrote me three page notes about where I had gone wrong and what I could do to write better.

As a graduate of a creative writing department,  I know how writing workshops work. Usually, the person whose work is discussed keeps quiet while everyone else discusses their work. This same person is always taking notes and then can comment on what he has heard. I’ve been through that trial by fire and I will be the first to admit that I am not the best writer in the world, but I also know that I have creative license to do whatever I want.

Well, this person cyber-bullied me every day for a month with her exacting comments. I blocked her and then unblocked her. I wrote her messages asking her to stop and she never did. Eventually, I was forced to delete all of my stories and look elsewhere. That’s where the story should have stopped, but it didn’t because I kept thinking about the bullying in my mind over and over again.

I went on the internet and looked up the screen name. I visited countless sites where I encountered the same kind of posturing and bullying. I saw the same kind of trash spewed on page after page. I wondered if this person had a conscience and I also wondered whether or not she was mentally ill or a compulsive liar. I did this almost every day and, every time, I would have an apoplectic fit because of what I saw.

A few months ago, she attacked a new story that I had posted on the same site. This time she really pressed the wrong buttons and I asked some internet friends to spam her inbox on Formspring (a site where people can ask anonymous questions). That was the worst mistake I could have made because I was the bully now and I was going after somebody that probably didn’t have anything better to do than to sit on the internet and read stories written by other teenagers as well as fully-fledged adults.

The months went by. I used to visit her Formspring account every other day. After that it was once a week, once every two weeks, and once a month. Finally, I just stopped caring and let go.

I know that I am not the only person who has been bullied on the internet. I know that I am not the only person who has the wounds and the scars to prove it. I know that I am not the only author who has had his pride hurt. There are hundreds of others like me out there if not thousands. Some of us are able to let go, while others aren’t. Some of us dream up ways to avenge ourselves, while there are always those others who close their eyes and keep on trucking.

I know for myself that letting go is always difficult for me. There are many painful memories that I have held onto for years, but the truth is that I have to let them go because that is the only way that I can moved forward.

Indeed, letting go and letting God are two parts of the same equation. When we are born, our little hands are balled into fists. We are defiant because we don’t want to be born into this world, but we die with our hands to what God has planned for us in the future. Not only this, but because we are now willing to accept the reward or the punishment that comes our way when this life is over.

When we undergo painful experiences, we always ball up our hands into fists. We want to fight those that have buffeted us and beaten us. We would like to teach them a lesson or two or we pray that God would grant them a taste of their own medicine. Yet there is a point when we open our hands and forgive because we know that that is the only thing that we can do as Catholic Christians.

There are many people who say that they cannot forgive someone else. There are probably thousands who walk around with their hands balled into fists and their hearts full of hatred. They wander through our world and their anger is like an infectious disease. Yet that same all-consuming anger is merely a manifestation of their hurt and, sometimes, the only thing we can do to assuage it is to give a helpful ear and listen because that is what these people want more than anything else. They simply desire someone who will hold their hand and say, “You’re going to be fine. You will get over this. Eventually, you will forgive everybody.”

Forgiveness, my readers, is at the heart and soul of our Catholic faith. When Our Lord shed His blood on the Cross, He died with His arms out and His hands open. He did not rail at those who had slapped him and crowned him with thorns. He did not pray that the Father would strike them with bolts of lightning and smite them. No. He looked down upon and He said those words which have reverberated in every Christian heart for more than two thousand years, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

It is this spirit of love that we must acquire if we are going to let go and forgive those who have done cruel things to us. Indeed, it is one of the hardest virtues to acquire, but it is the most rewarding. Indeed, we will be loved as we have loved and we will be forgiven as we have forgiven. Isn’t that incentive enough?

 

Mission: Yours, Mine, and Ours

Tags

, , , , ,

Shortly before I left on my big Bulgarian adventure, I read this book. The main reason was because I had always heard a great deal about St. Vincent de Paul and the orders he founded, but I really didn’t know about their purposes or rules.

I must confess here that reading the book was somewhat of a disappointment for me. When reading the rules of other great orders (Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan, Discalced Carmelite), I always founded that the founders were very interested in giving precise details about the times when the friars, nuns, or laypeople should pray, wash dishes, etc.

The Vincentian rules, however, were nothing like this. Rather than telling his priests and the Daughters of Charity what they should do and how they should do it, St. Vincent de Paul left the rules rather open ended. I’m not saying that he does not issue commands and does not ask for certain very difficult things, but he does this to a lesser degree than some of the other founders that I’ve encountered like St. Francis or St. Ignatius Loyola. I guess, if you want to look at it from a modern perspective, St. Vincent de Paul was not a control freak at all.

Of course, there is something to be said about all of this. The Fathers of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity were founded for two very specific purposes. The former to preach missions among the poor and the persons found in the country, the latter were the first nurses and worked in the hospital, orphanages, and leper colonies that the Order founded. Considering their work, it is understandable that their founder would not go through great lengths in delineating their rules of life. It is also understandable that he would give his children a great deal of freedom.

In thinking about rules of life, I have found that different rules suit certain people. There was a time in my life when I was very stringent with myself. I followed the Benedictine horarium to the letter for a number of months. In the beginning, I was very gung ho about it. I wanted to do it because it felt like the right thing to do, but then I started working and my schedule changed to the point where keeping a Benedictine rule was something that was impractical.

Now, I don’t really keep any kind of rule at all. Due to my teaching schedule, I pray the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin at flexible hours. Matins doesn’t always begin at six o’clock and Vespers sometimes doesn’t come until eight or nine, but I’m okay with this because I’m fulfilling what I believe to be God’s will for me at this particular point in my life.

However, there is another point to my encounter with these books that has nothing to do with rules, but with another important point: mission.

In “The Blue Brothers,” Elwood and Jakes Blues are sent on a mission to save an orphanage. They say that they are on a mission from God (or Gad, if you are John Belushi). Like them, we are also on a mission from God.

The thing is, though, that most of us don’t know what our mission is. For most of our lives, we kind of grope around in the dark looking for that purpose. We try different avenues, we enter different places thinking that that’s what God wants us to do. If you read this blog carefully, you will see that I’ve walked in circles many times over the years trying to ascertain exactly what my mission was and what it still is.

This searching is part of the process. Finding out God’s will is not something that can be accomplished over the course of a week or a month. It’s not something that we find out in a day. It takes years and years of discernment and prayer as well as reading to find the direction in which we’re supposed to go. To God, who doesn’t see time in the same way as we do, one day is as a thousand years and He will let us know what our purpose is in his own time rather than in ours.

Many years ago, I thought that becoming a teacher was something that I never wanted to be. It’s a familial profession and I wanted to do something different with my life. Through a chain of events, however, I found that teaching was my vocation and my mission.

Today, when I work in my classrooms, I feel an overwhelming desire to transmit to my students what I have learned and read over the course of many years about literature. I see the thirst for knowledge in their eyes and their longing for something that will give their lives meaning. Many of them remind me of the children that St. John Baptist de La Salle worked with when he first began his Order: children from poor and broken families whose desire was to learn to read and write.

It is with this intention in mind that I have forced myself to work as hard as I can for my students. Reaching them is my current mission and I am humbled by how accepting they are of the many thankless hours that I put into my work for them. Yet I am also thankful to God that He brought me back to the country of my birth so that I could finally see that my heart truly belongs in the classroom.

As I have said before, all of us are on a mission from God. As Mother Angelica once put it so well, “We are all called to be great saints. Don’t miss the opportunity!”

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

St. Vincent de Paul, pray for us!

St. Louis de Marillac, pray for us!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.