May God expand our too-small hearts

(Unsplash / Renee Fisher)

One of the benefits of being a novice director is that there are some marvelous prayer and study enrichment opportunities built into one's life that might not otherwise fit into the schedule of a normal ministry year. I'm writing this from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, toward the end of several days of silence and psalm-singing with the monks here. Our Marianist men and women novices are here with their directors to experience the monastic rhythm of prayer and life.

Unexpectedly, these days have given me a new perspective on the life of our foundress, Blessed Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon, and my experience of her beatification on June 10, 2018.

I was blessed to represent our province at the beatification in Agen, the city in southwest France where Adèle gathered with other young women to form the first religious community to emerge from the lay groups (sodalities) of what we now call the "Marianist Movement." Today, the Marianist Family is male and female, lay and religious, spread across the world, building communities of faith and action dedicated to continuing Mary's mission of bringing Christ into our own day and time.

As I arrived in France on a flight from Accra, Ghana, after a two-week immersion with other faculty from the University of Dayton, it hit me: "This is really happening!"

A woman asked me why I was coming to Bordeaux and I was so moved, I could barely speak. Since I entered in 1975, we have been praying that the whole church would recognize Adèle's holiness. Now, in 2018, that prayer had come to fruition!

The sisters in Agen were accommodating me early for several days since there was a gap between my program in Ghana and Togo and the beatification. That meant I got to help them with needed tasks, like assembling 400 pilgrim backpacks, and accompanying them around the city to various parish churches for Mass.

Everywhere we went, there were flyers posted, and thanksgiving prayers said for the grace of the beatification of this hometown girl on her way to sainthood.

On Saturday, lay and religious Marianist pilgrims came from all over the world to have a massive family reunion, capped off with a spectacle, an operetta of Adèle's life performed on the front veranda of her family's home.

Finally, on Sunday, we celebrated the beatification with her blood family, the bishops of France and a few thousand people from all over the diocese. Our sisters from Vietnam danced the Magnificat, our African sisters presented the gifts with drumming and song, and our Indian sisters performed the aarti ritual to reverence the gifts at the altar.

There are a handful of events that I tell people are "the top five" of my lifetime: Being present on Adèle's birthday for her beatification with my sisters from around the world is one of them.

The reliquary of Adèle that was enshrined in the Cathedral of Agen after her beatification represents a heart that is aflame. It recalls a prayer Adèle prayed on May 4, 1818, two years after the foundation of the Marianist Sisters, a prayer that is treasured in the Marianist Family. "Oh my God, my heart is too small to love you. So I will make you loved by so many other hearts that their love will make up for the littleness of mine."

Fast-forward to Lent 2019, in the hills of Kentucky. I happened to bring a book with me, The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh, a teacher of engaged Buddhism, a form of Buddhism combining social service with meditative practice that was a response to the political struggles and war in Vietnam.

The book recounts the Vietnamese story of a young woman, Kinh Tam, who so desired the opportunity to live the monastic life that she disguised herself as a young man to be admitted to the temple. The way he/she overcame two different sufferings of false accusations — by continually expanding her heart to embrace her accusers and to return compassion and love in place of bitterness — led to her being acclaimed after her death as a bodhisattva of great compassion. Moreover, her great desire that women be allowed to practice monasticism in Vietnam came to pass as she was recognized for her practice of inclusive love and compassion.

I couldn't help thinking of Adèle as I read of Kinh Tam's efforts to expand her heart to cultivate loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

And I couldn't help thinking of Thomas Merton, buried just 100 yards from where I write this. When I am not serving as novice director, I am a sociologist of religion, teaching classes on social justice and the world religions. I often find myself looking to Merton to understand his passion for bridging the gaps between Eastern and Western monasticism and the meditative and contemplative practices of the various world religions. His writings on peace and the insanity of war and his invitation to a life of prayer that takes us deep into the human heart and the heart of Christ guide seekers from all traditions.

We are here these days asking God to expand our hearts, to have the kind of inclusive love and compassion that will fuel our religious lives, but more importantly, to respond to the deep needs of the world.

So many situations in our world and in our church cry for healing and compassion that it's only too evident that our hearts are too small. But with dedication to inclusive, compassionate love and extending the constant invitation to others to the same, may we be able to bring some light and healing into a deeply troubled world.

[Marianist Sr. Laura M. Leming is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton and serves on the Board of Trustees of St. Mary's University in San Antonio.]

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