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.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, Sister Norma invited a couple other young women and me to Fellows Riverside Gardens. We’d had a busy morning visiting with Ursuline Sisters and Associates, and Sister Norma said that the rose garden is a good place to pray and reflect. One of the girls had never been there before, and as we entered the garden, she marveled at how many different kinds of flowers and plants there were. In response, Sister Norma turned to us and said, “It all started with a couple of bushes!” As I walked the paths of the garden with all of its colors and kinds of flowers, I tried to imagine its simple beginnings.
Last week Tuesday (January 27), the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown celebrated the feast day of St. Angela with an evening mass and dinner. Sisters and Associates gathered to pray and share their stories about how they are continuing to live St. Angela’s mission through their ministries. As one of the Sisters described it to me later, the celebration was prayerful and joyful, and I could imagine the energy in their songs and stories.
As the Church celebrated the Epiphany this past weekend, the Ursuline Sisters offered a discernment retreat for young women. The group fluctuated due to schedule conflicts and other factors, but we managed to adapt. During our opening prayer on Friday evening, we were able to use FaceTime to include a volunteer from Houston and bring her presence into the front parlor with us. And on the final morning of the retreat, we relocated our faith sharing from the chapel to the lobby so that the student who was working at the receptionist’s desk could join in. As one of the sisters described it, we were like the Biblical Magi, traveling and sharing our faith.
During my time with the Ursuline Sisters, Sister Julia and I became close friends. Sister Norma, my internship supervisor, introduced me to her soon after I arrived at the Motherhouse in the summer of 2012, and we bonded over a game of Scrabble.
We never kept score, but we strictly adhered to the rules. We’d begin by flipping a tile to see who would go first. The board swiveled, so we used the motion as a way to signal the next person’s turn. Questionable words had to be checked in the large-print dictionary. Once, she tried to play “Pax,” and we had to discuss whether or not Latin words were acceptable.