by Cheryl Ann Smith.
What! Transferred to Winslow! What do you mean, Winslow? After all these years of serving in the busy "marketplaces" of Edmonton and Combermere, I was sure my next assignment would be the desire of my heart—a prayer house.
Besides, how can you let me go? Aren’t I indispensable in Combermere?
Of course none of these protests left my lips, as Jean Fox, my director general, was telling me that she was transferring me to our house in Winslow, Arizona. But that was certainly my inner reaction.
Sensing this, Jean whispered, "Think big." Only after my eight years in Arizona, did I have some inkling of what she meant.
In God’s providence, I was already about to make a retreat. By the end of the retreat, I was resigned. I would embrace my cross. Instead of plunging into the holy waters of silent prayer, I would take up an active apostolate.
I would bid farewell to my beloved green Ontario countryside, and I would accept the bleak desert land. I would leave all that was familiar in my Combermere family and cling to God alone. Perhaps this was what Jean meant by "think big."
What a life-changing surprise awaited me!
What is holiness?
I wanted holiness, but what is that? My image of it was union with God through silent prayer. But what I learned from my Winslow friends is that holiness is the union of an anawim (a person who knows his utter need of God) with the all-merciful Lord.
I had always been ashamed of my poverty and sinfulness, but I learned in Winslow how to stand in the reality of the "God-belovedness" of my humanity.
How did this happen? One way was through the Scripture groups. As we prayed with the Sunday Mass readings, I learned to sit up and listen when Pauline Hernandez would say shyly, "Well, something strikes me a little differently about this reading".
And out would pop a connection to our everyday life that took my breath away and helped to change my heart. No exegetical studies would have offered this kind of connection.
And when I would gaze on the weather-beaten faces of the men, I couldn’t help but hear the apostles Peter and Thomas cry out their faith in Jesus, in the very midst of their broken humanity. These men knew the Lord in a way I couldn’t yet, because they stood in the truth of their poverty and were not afraid.
But these connections with Jesus weren’t just made in prayer groups. I don’t know why, but tragedy seemed to strike often in Winslow, and what I saw awed me: these "salt of the earth" disciples did not curse or turn away from God. They came together and held on to their faith even more tightly than before.
They didn’t demand to understand. They trusted their Savior.
What is beauty?
When I first journeyed by train to Winslow, I watched the countryside gradually change from the rolling hills of Ontario, to the plains of Kansas, to… cowboy country!
I gasped as I awoke on the second day of the journey, to land I’d never seen before—the scrub brush and craggy hills of old Western movies.
Then when I disembarked in Winslow, I saw to my delight that there actually were some green leaves and flowers. It wasn’t lush, mind you, but it wasn’t barren either.
I soon learned that five miles away from our house was a refreshing swimming hole called "The Creek," and 45 minutes to the south and west were trees like those in Canada. Three hours away was the Grand Canyon, one of the great natural wonders of the world.
I had been loath to leave the consolation of my native land for the starkness of the desert, but my vision was expanded through the seemingly infinite vistas of the llano (desert), through the night sky, through the mighty strength of a tiny desert flower which had "miraculously" poked up through the baked desert clay, and through the almost frightening contrasts of frigid nights and blistering hot days.
The extremes on all sides shouted that God is vast, not to be taken for granted, not to be controlled. They shouted that I am very little, and must fall on my face before the living God.
What is family?
I loved my life in Combermere, especially living our beautiful gospel way of life with my Madonna House family. But I had a lot to learn about family, and again, my Winslow friends stretched my heart.
I was an "Anglo," what the people of Winslow call a white non-Mexican, but I was immediately accepted as a sister by our Mexican-American neighbors.
If one of us from Madonna House went visiting, but found no one home, we knew we were welcome (indeed expected) to come in anyway and grab a can of Coke from the fridge and a bowl of chili from the stove.
Mi casa su casa (My house is your house) was drilled into my heart when I unwittingly hurt my friend Rachel by phoning to see if I could come for a visit. Family don’t call; they just come.
And as we shared what we had, people shared with us. We lived on donated food, mostly dated food from the grocery store, and after taking some for ourselves, we would share the rest around Southside (our area of town).
Inevitably, we would return home with Stephie’s eggs (from her hen in the back yard) or clothing from Ruth’s daughter or freshly baked enchiladas from another friend. We were a neighborhood family.
Think big. What opened up in my heart was the conviction that I need to cry, "These are my people," not just about my family of origin, or Madonna House, or Southside, but about all people—without exception.
We are all members of the one family of God, brothers and sisters together. The Lord calls us to drop the barriers and fears that keep us apart and to open our arms to one another. Oh, how much I learned from my "adopted" family!
After eight years in that blessed house, I left Winslow ("What! Transferred from Winslow! What do you mean?) with a greatly expanded vision of holiness, beauty, and family.
I knew my own humanity and God’s mercy and awesomeness in a much deeper way.
And I had learned an invaluable lesson about trusting God in our promise of obedience. Given a choice, I would not have gone to Winslow, and my heart would be so much poorer.
I suppose what Jean said to me was: "Whatever God offers, say yes. Open your heart to receive. Think big."
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