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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Gift of Blessing

Maxine Shonk is a colleague of mine in Central Ohio.  She has been affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of Peace for 48 years.  Maxine has written two books of blessings, Blessing Upon Blessing and Silver Linings, Blessings for Shadow Times.  I frequently utilize Maxine’s blessings with spiritual directees, for retreat experiences, and in small groups.  AWBA's upcoming retreat "Carrying the Soul of Summer" offers one of Maxine's blessings in each week's material.  Her blessings are so relevant for those impacted by a chronic diagnosis.  To learn more about these books or to order a copy (they make great gifts as well!) visit blessing books.  I know you will enjoy hearing her story.

Could you share a little bit about yourself as a Dominican Sister and how you have chosen to live out your vocation in ministry to others?
I am a Dominican Sister of Peace and am a native of Lancaster Ohio.  As a Dominican my experiences include teaching or administration in elementary, secondary and under graduate education.  For the last twenty four years I have ministered in spirituality as spiritual director, retreat facilitator, presenter, and preacher in adult faith formation.  My ministry in education has led me to many schools in Ohio, including Ohio Dominican University, and to New Haven in Connecticut as high school teacher/administrator.  My ministry in spirituality and theology took me into parish ministry in Columbus, into the position of administrator in the early founding days of the Spirituality Network, and off to Great Bend Kansas for work with a spirituality team at a retreat center there.  Retreat ministry in the ecumenical community, has taken me into many churches and faith communities in central Ohio, and into a life altering experience of an eight week fact finding mission to four countries in East Africa.  Among the many venues in which I have served I have a particular passion for my involvement with women’s groups and with my work with women who are marginalized in the Columbus area. It is in the context of all these experiences that, over the years, I began to write blessings both as a way to express what I knew as blessing in my ministry and as an instrument with which others could bless one another.  These blessings have found their way into the two books referenced above.

Would you speak briefly to the purpose of “blessing” and how it can be a vital part of our spiritual journey?  
Blessing has always been a very important theme in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  At the very beginning God created all that is, created each of us, and blessed it.  And God never stops blessing us throughout our lives.  It is ours to remember and recall God’s presence and blessing if we are to know its role in our lives.  I think we have to be on the lookout for God’s blessing even in the hardest of times for it is there.  But if we are not looking we will miss it. I think that when we bless one another we are reminding one another to look for God, to watch God working in our lives.  As a child  I was taught this lesson but didn’t really learn it until I was in my forties.  I grew up in a family of 14 children and we lived in a very small house which my father was always trying to make bigger.  He was very good with his hands and was always working in the basement on some project.  He was a contemplative man so I suspect his retreats to the basement were about more than working on his projects.  Besides that is where he kept his homemade wine!  Anyway, as a child, I remember sitting on the basement steps watching him.  Very seldom were there words exchanged between us.  He did his work and I sat with my chin in my hands and watched.  As I grew into adulthood I remember looking back at those times and resenting the fact that he did not speak to me, did not engage me in conversation.  Did he even notice that I was there?!   Why couldn’t he have at least acknowledged me?!  I was angry and these were all questions I needed to ask and to process.  But finally in my forties when someone asked me what my image of God was, I said without thinking,   “God is the one to watch working in your life.”  And I knew then I had been blessed by the experience.  So perhaps the purpose of blessing is to point out to us or to highlight what is already there and how God is present to it.  The best definition of blessing that I have heard is that to bless is to “make holy”, to “make sacred”.  The biblical notion of blessing also always involves being blessed and blessing in turn. It is a scriptural principle that those who freely receive should also freely give (Mt 10:37)  So as we are made holy (blessed) by our experiences (always … in time) so we are asked to bless each other and make holy all those we meet.

I know you have received stories from others about how people have been impacted through these blessings.  Can you share a few of those stories?
I have found that the most effective way to use these blessings is to have them bestowed upon you;  to hear the blessing from another’s lips.  I have done this in countless circles at the end of retreats where each one chooses a blessing and blesses the one next to them aloud.  In one such circle, a retreat for a parish team who knew each other well, a husband and wife were standing next to each other.  He had just announced to the group that his cancer had returned and he would be undergoing a second round of chemo and would not be able to work with them for a while.  His wife then blessed him with the blessing she had drawn:   May the God of Courage be with you, helping your to embrace the darkness and pain of the journey, calling you to stand in love with those who suffer.  May this God carve her faithful love into your heart.  May your inner self be transformed so that you can see more clearly our own journey as one of peace, hope, and solidarity. 

The Sisters with whom I worked in Kansas ran a hospital nearby.  They took the blessings and hung them one by one on a “tree” in the lobby.  Visitors and patients alike  began to bless one another and even took them home to bless children and parents.  One rural retreat center put the blessings in their free standing mailbox where travelers and visitors would stop and choose their blessing.  They watched each day as a neighboring farmer working in his field would drive his tractor up to the mailbox, dismount, choose his blessing and drive off again.  Home visitors prepare baskets of blessings to take to their shut-in patients so that they may be blessed daily.  I am constantly and consistently amazed by the way these blessings have graced people’s lives.  It is as if they have a life of their own and the Spirit has taken charge of them in a way I could never have predicted or controlled! 

As you know, AWBA’s ministry has as its primary focus to provide support and encouragement to those who live with chronic disease and their caregivers.  How would those we serve be impacted by a book of blessings?  How are the topics relevant to being impacted by a chronic disease?   
I think that one of the most difficult and most rewarding things we can do for ourselves is to be able to take a step back from our close-up perspective, and to see ourselves as God sees us … broken AND blessed.  God is a both/and God in an either/or world.   Even in our anger, disappointments, discouragements, etc.  God waits to bless.  Watch for God.  The blessings especially in the “Silver Linings” book are one small effort at putting words to the watching and the waiting.  Sometimes a short blessing is all one is capable of absorbing  or hearing at one time.  Somehow they are a way of praying when you are not able.  As St. Paul says, “When we cannot pray as we ought, the Spirit prays in us”.  

From your own life experiences and in ministry to others, in what ways do you experience the life-giving presence of God in the challenges associated with a chronic diagnosis and in caring (personally and/or professionally) by those living with a chronic disease?  
My nephew, Ben, lives with ALS… since 2007.   He is in his mid 30’s and has two small children (4 and 6).  He is a graduate of Notre Dame in English and taught in the English Dept. of Fisher Catholic High School.  At this point in time he cannot eat, speak, move or even breathe without a ventilator.  And yet I experience the life-giving presence of God in who he is.  …  because  God has been present in him and his wife, Sarah, in his mother/my sister Jane, and in all the friends and relatives … who have never let Ben forget who he is!  … Ben communicates through a computer, using his eyes to put the words in the computer’s mouth … a slow and tedious process.  Yet his brother and sisters continue to joke with him.  He was best man at his brother’s wedding. His children “romp” with him by climbing all over his wheelchair.  His wife consults him in everything and they even have their occasional arguments.  The doctors said he would live 3-5 years.  He is now enjoying his sixth year with ALS.  His uncles come and exercise him and his brother and sister-in-law take them on vacation with them.  I’m sure they all have their moments.  But, none of them have forgotten who he is and in the process are learning who they are.  Ben has been blessed (made holy) by who they are.  And each of them (and I) have grown and been blessed (made holy) in return by who he is.  God waits with blessing for all of us and waits for us to bless in turn.  

What final thoughts or bits of wisdom would you like to share with our readers?

I am grateful for Maxine taking time to share her story with our readers.  I encourage you to consider at least one of these books for yourself or someone you love.  The are a tremendous resource and an even better gift.

1 comment:

  1. These are wonderful books. When I need an encouraging word or reminder that I'm not alone, I open the book at a random page and read the blessing to myself. The blessings always seem to fit somewhere into my life situation and help bring me calmness.

    Thank you Sister Maxine!