There are spaces in our lives that feel as comfortable as a warm bed. A cup of tea with a lifelong friend. A walk along a well-worn path. A song that you can sing by heart. Our most cherished memories wrap us like a cozy blanket, inviting us to drift off and dream. These spaces offer a chance to rest and re-energize. The body settles easily and begs us to stay, just a little longer. Then, life wakes us up.
Anxiety cannot be cured, only managed. Fifteen years since the diagnosis, my therapist offered this gentle reminder as I returned to her office for my now weekly appointment. The anxiety had been at a manageable distance for the past decade. During that time, I had been to China twice. I had lived on my own in a different state where I didn’t know anyone. I had spoken in front of crowds of a hundred people. Each milestone chiseled the anxiety into a pocket-sized problem that I could tuck out of sight.
The sun was setting over the seminary grounds in Wickliffe. Food trucks and vendors had put away their goods. The Christian bands who had filled the summer air with song had played their final numbers. The daylight would soon give way to a warm August night, but the Fest was not over yet. The outdoor mass was about to begin.
Snow swirled across the road like wisps of smoke, illuminating in the headlight beams then fading into the night. I had begun my drive to Youngstown after a busy day at work, and the momentum of the day propelled me. My thoughts spun like the wind-whipped snow.
At the Temple of Yu Fei in Hangzhou, China, a student approached me to practice her English. She pointed to a nearby tree and proudly told me that it was over 700 years old. We were standing outside of a temple built in honor of a twelfth century military hero, but I wasn’t aware that I was standing on the precipice of history until that moment. I gazed at the calloused bark and realized that the tree was older than my country.
“Come celebrate with us,” Sister Dorothy said when I spoke with her on the phone earlier this month. The Ursuline Sisters and Associates were preparing their annual celebration for the Feast Day of Saint Angela Merici, their founder. For the past few years, I was already back at West Virginia University by this time, the spring semester well underway, and I hadn’t been able to attend a Feast Day celebration. Now was my chance.
On the night before the convocation, Sister Diane and I tuned in for a PBS special called Masters of the Skies. Rain poured outside her sitting room window and kept us indoors for the evening, but the program took us to places of clear air and sunshine. Among the animals featured on the program was the crane. A French pilot had befriended a family of these birds to fly alongside them and film the amazing footage we watched on TV that night.
On Saturday morning, Sister Norma and I took a walk together along Lake Erie. The water was unusually calm. Ripples fluttered across the surface usually wrung with waves. Sister Norma said that the calm water was a perfect symbol for the daily Gospel reading. Jesus asks: “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan?” (Mt. 6:27) He turns our attention to nature, revealing how God provides food for the birds and beautiful garments for the flowers. Like the calm morning lake, nature does not worry yet its needs are met by the Creator. For us too, we must trust that God will ease the concerns that clutter our days:
On January 4, the first full day of retreat, our small group gathered in chapel for morning prayer. It happened to be the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity and the first native-born American saint, so we prayed from the Proper of the Saints in the Ursuline Book of Prayer. The response was an excerpt from Saint Elizabeth’s writings: “What is distance or separation when our soul, plunged into the ocean of infinity, sees all in God’s own bosom!” Here, Saint Elizabeth invites us to see God’s love as ever-present and ever-lasting, beyond the human confines of space and time. The boundaries and limitations we raise are arbitrary.
Whenever my mom’s side of the family gathers to celebrate a birthday, we sing “Sto Lat,” the Polish birthday song. It was the language of my ancestors, as much a part of me as the Polish blood that flows through my veins. But at the same time, it was foreign—a string of sounds I was able to imitate, and, though repetition, learn to follow. During one recent celebration, though, amidst the smoke of an extinguished candle and the smell of frosting, my grandfather asked my cousins and me if we understood the meaning of the song. We shook our heads and he went on to translate the words line by line, and I felt, for the first time, that I could claim them as my own and truly sing them for my family.