On Discernment

Michelle Schmid, Service Corps Member 2016-17, reflects on her weekend on retreat with the Franciscans of Atonement in Garrison, New York.  

Before me lies the famed Appalachian Trail, weaving down between trees and the sloping folds of hills. Sun beams through the trees creating a tapestry of browns, golds, and bruised blues in the February air. In the late afternoon, the smashed leaves that mark the path are hard to distinguish from the decaying foliage of the forest. Sometimes, the path completely disappears to a layer of disintegrating snow; I don’t always know where to place my feet or exactly where the path goes. My eyes seek the trunks of trees for the white trail markers or I search through the chaos of the ground for stray footprints from others before me. When there is nothing, I guess.

I love nature. I love the raw beauty of the earth and how the busyness of work and the everyday disappear in a moment, swept away by the vigor of the wind and the hollow cacophony of silence. I love how the realness of the earth becomes the perfect analogy for the present. I had come to this land on a retreat centered on discernment, that weighty word meant to capture the individual’s quest for defining purpose and direction in life. The land itself became the environment for understanding my own discernment.

Discernment is a scary sounding word. Years of listening to people throw the word around in hushed whispers whenever an acquaintance or relative had decided to look into becoming a priest or nun has indirectly given the word a negative aura. Not that it is bad to become a nun or a priest, but the word has only been used to refer to that type of decision in such a way that suggests scandal or the taboo. For so much of my life, discernment has remained a hushed-up topic. However, the word has so much more to offer.

When I think of discernment, I am automatically reminded of the Latin word ‘discere,’ which means ‘to learn.’ It is the same root for the word disciple, those who follow a specific teacher or leader. As a result, my understanding of discernment starts with learning. Learning what to do with my life, what I need to direct my attention to, and how to enhance my daily life are broad reasons for choosing to participate in a discernment weekend.  Learning requires openness.

The Franciscans of Atonement are situated on extensive grounds with beautiful views of the surrounding hill region and the Hudson Valley. Wandering on top of the hill, I encountered views of the land and the clear dome of the sky opening around me. This is the descriptor of learning: a mind willing to receive.

I am struck by how much I have to learn. From serving students who have monumentally different backgrounds from me. From living and communing with young women who come from all over the country. From diving into my own understanding of the spiritual. Learning is an interconnecting bond of growth. I always get caught up with how connected every person is: every person I know knows at least one other person I don’t know who knows even more people I may never know or come into contact with. Yet somehow, we all share the same earth, the same air.

In a way, I see the service, spirituality, and community of my year of service similarly connected. Each one relates back to revealing more of who I am. The more I serve, the more I learn about how I love and care for others. By interacting with my community, I learn about how I build relationships. Spirituality becomes the place where I recognize the connectedness of my life with the lives of those around me. In a way, community fosters service and service fosters community. And everything is bound by the spirituality of human existence.

I am brought back to a statue that I found while exploring the grounds of the Franciscans. The statue depicted the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, with three women mourning beneath the cross. Overhead stretched the bare branches of trees that I’m sure in warmer months, bear beautifully colored leaves. However, I was struck by the expansive blue sky revealed just above, making the scene stand out even more to me. Here, there is a man who has served so many other people in various ways. In ways that encouraged others to learn and become more themselves. Here below are women gathered together from different paths of life, some of them inspired to serve the dying man on the cross. And all of them united in the human spirit of mourning. Even in a hard scene of death, I am reminded of the mysterious beauty of community, service, spirituality.

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Coming back to Buffalo after spending time to retreat and really consider everything going on around me, I realize that while I walked the Appalachian Trail, I had no clear sight of the end. The trail ends so far from where I walked, it is almost laughable to think about seeing the end. My discernment does not concern knowing exactly where I am going. Maybe every once and awhile, I will experience certainty about a decision I make. But for me, my discernment lies in the small parts of the path at hand, finding where I am going today and taking the steps I need to keep on the trail.

The more I serve, the more I learn about how I love and care for others. By interacting with my community, I learn about how I build relationships. Spirituality becomes the place where I recognize the connectedness of my life with the lives of those around me. In a way, community fosters service and service fosters community. And everything is bound by the spirituality of human existence.

Don't You Just Love New York in the Fall?

Western New York has been good to me. Since arriving on my birthday and flying into Buffalo to a breathtaking sunset, I have been overwhelmed by the natural beauty here. I took advantage of the decent weather a couple weekends ago and drove down to Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East and “America’s #1 State Park!”—or so the sign read at the entrance. I believe it.

The gorge was startlingly deep, and from a height, the Genesee River looked more like a creek, but the closer we got, the more we could feel the power of the water. Our hike took us through woodlands, where we stopped periodically to eat our pb&j sandwiches, Granny Smith apples, and fruit bars. Up and down steep trails, at points we would steady ourselves by holding on to tree branches and roots. The wildlife, from small rodents to deer families, took very little notice of us, and we passed by each other with reverence and care. At sunset, golden rays beamed through the tree tops, softening the harsh greens of summer and emboldening the cozy reds of autumn. We drove home through the winding hills and were welcomed back to Buffalo by the orange hunter’s moon, the perfect way to close out the day.

-Maggie Scheer, 2016-17 Service Corps Member, Western New York Law Center

Member Reflection: Michelle Schmid

Six weeks into my year of service, I find myself re-learning what makes me me. Part of revisiting my identity is seeing the past collide irrevocably with the present in a multicolored tapestry, like the changing leaves along the highway. As I ride in the passenger’s seat watching the trees coast by, paint smudged greens and golds and wine purple sweetly bruised, I feel myself resting at the meeting of times. Here, every person I have been and each part of my life seems to meld together to create my whole person. I am motley. And yet, I am creating new memories and being changed even as I sit and watch the memories bleed into the present.

Michelle Schmid (bottom right) and fellow Service Corps Members explore their new home at St. John Kanty parish during orientaiton. 

Michelle Schmid (bottom right) and fellow Service Corps Members explore their new home at St. John Kanty parish during orientaiton. 

The weaving of memory is a beautiful reality. I love to see how my experiences now change me and bring forth some hidden parts of my personality. I never grow less amazed at how I have somehow become one of the most extroverted people in my environment. Today, my roommate Maggie commented on how much more extroverted I am, which is hard for me to grasp since I have often felt less extroverted when around extreme extroverts. So often people have called me an introverted personality! And yet, being around new people, I see myself full of some secret energy source; I’d like to call it my personality, but I realize that my zeal for life comes from an interior joy rooted in my soul’s abandonment to God. There lies an unknown freedom in jumping into the unknown, trusting that the Lord will lift you up.

I am very blessed to work with children; I think they remind me a lot of my own childhood, which might otherwise fade into the shadows of my mind, and this sense of abandonment. They are full of life because they trust someone will care for them. However, even more so, they are teaching me a certain form of discipline. I struggle to have a firm attitude with the students sometimes. I look at them, I think about how they are experiencing the world, and I want so much to help them understand in a gentle manner. Sometimes, there is really only one way to get through to them that is safe and sure, which is detention. I dread giving detention, because I am never sure if that kind of action will teach them what they need to know. When does disciplinary action like detention stop having meaning? I am not sure, but I dislike the idea of punishment. Perhaps this dislike of mine explains why so many individuals could not believe that I was teaching. I am growing though, and learning.

I am brought back to how i keep learning about myself. Being here is the farthest I’ve lived away from my family. Lately, I have been considering how I am the wild card in my family, living so far away and in such a varied situation. I love bringing people to where I am currently living since the area speaks for itself. Usually, I just have to point out where I live to people to induce a silence that echoes the raw struggle of the area. I love talking about what I am doing for work; even though I know there are people who travel the country informing individuals about the great disparity between classes in our country, even though I know people read books all the time and hear stories about these very issues I see every day, I wonder if any of it really sinks in. There remains a certain barrier between the poor, a barrier between individuals and the struggles of other people. When I begin describing in detail what I see every day and the people I meet and interact with, my friends and family seemed to react more to the change. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, yet neighbors around us suffer and fight a paradoxical cycle.

I think that is the best part about living with my community. Our current location and experiences really meld to create a type of community and understanding that I can not necessarily share easily with just any person. The work is hard and intense, yet i know that the people I live with understand the drive, the passion that pushes me to succeed and look at work as something so much more than just some job. I love the struggle. It is in my blood to fight to the very end of all things, until I am skin and bones, my knuckles are sore and bruised, my legs have walked a thousand miles without rest. I will push myself if there is a reason for love. With this work, I am either all in or I am wasting my time.

But I don’t feel afraid. I gave up my fear when I said yes. That is my model of abandonment. Not that on occasion I feel no discomfort. Part of my decision to come here, though, was to face my fear of making the wrong decision, to jump full on into something that I felt passionate and interested in. When I do feel afraid, it is not because of the people or the neighborhood; the people are approaching me because of the environment we are in, because I am a stereotypical white privileged young woman in a neighborhood that has suffered greatly. I am not surprised to run into a strange encounter. I can go anywhere in the world and experience a strange encounter. My fear arises when I doubt my own ability to achieve something. However, I am not the sum of my successes or my weaknesses. I am truly the sum of God’s love for me. My entire dignity and life stems from the love of God for me.

Occasionally, I get frustrated at not having quick and easy access to a nonstop life. I grew so used to always being incredibly busy and going places and sleeping little that I forgot what it feels like to take everything in stride. Yet, if I am always busy and booked, I would not have time for prayer and I would not be available to others. I did not come here to serve myself, which is a constant temptation. I see myself longing to just cook food for myself and take care of my own needs without taking in how I can help those around me. There is a brief moment when I stare at the dirty dishes in the sink and consider how much easier it would be to just clean my own. Then I remind myself I came to serve others. And I think that I have to remind myself with an increased devotion to my prayer life that I cannot focus so much on my own pleasure. Pleasure does not often lead to happiness when it stems from selfish intent. Abandonment means letting go not just of plans and expectations but also self comfort that might truly be unnecessary. When have lives of extreme comfort led to lives of extreme joy and love?

-Michelle Schmid, 2016-17 Service Corps Member, St. Monica's Middle School

Working at the Catholic Charities' Food Pantries is Not Only About Stocking Cupboards.

I had many different opportunities presented to me on places to work when I decided to do a year of service with the Catholic Charities Service Corps. I picked serving at the food pantries because I wanted to do some mercy work for the Year of Mercy and feeding the hungry is a work of mercy. I hoped to personally grow from this experience and better understand the needs of my neighbors.

There is a lot of physical labor involved in working at the pantry such as unloading the trucks and keeping the pantry stocked. It is good honest work and in this there is a simple joy that comes from it. I actually enjoy the hard work because it is in the times when the work is hardest that the workers at the pantry come together the most. Team work is key and knowing you can count on anyone there for support is also very important. Beside the good people there are also the joy one gets from interacting with the people who come to receive food from the pantry.

The pantry’s members are officially referred to as clients but to us they are more than that. They are our neighbors and friends who are very much a part of our lives. Working with them offers an enriching experience because they don’t just come to get food. They come to share stories about their lives, share recipes that they make using the food we give them, and some even offer to volunteer to help others. There is a real community commitment that exists between the workers and the clients to assist one another. This relationship gives both parties a sense of value and honors the dignity of each individual.  

Personally, I marvel at the strength the pantry’s clients have. Many of them are dealing with very tough situations and they pull through with great courage. They place great value in community, family, religion, and friends. By placing their value in people they seem less focused on things and they seem happier in general. It seems to me the old saying runs true that poverty is not the denial of happiness but its source in it you learn to love God and trust one another.

-Brenda Myc, 2016-17 Service Corps Member, Catholic Charities' Parish Outreach and Advocacy 

Reflection: Merciful Like the Father

The “hot topic” in the Catholic world lately seems to be mercy--and rightly so, as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis, began on December 8, 2015. During this Year of Mercy, Catholics are called to reflect on how we live out our call to show mercy in imitation of the Father. We keep hearing about mercy, but what does it mean for us? In his Bull of Indiction declaring the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis says, “Mercy is a key word that indicates God’s action toward us. He does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible.” Jesus Christ is concrete evidence of the Father’s mercy towards us. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with sinners, and ultimately gave His life for the forgiveness of our sins. 

As a Service Corps volunteer living by the values of social justice and spirituality, I have a unique opportunity to live out this call to mercy this year and be a visible sign of God’s love. Some days that might mean providing for someone’s corporal needs--helping a client who is homeless find a place to live, or providing a referral to a food pantry. Some days it means providing for someone’s spiritual needs--simply sharing a laugh with a client or providing emotional support for a woman who has experienced domestic violence. Some days it might even mean learning to be merciful with myself--seeing myself and my successes and failures through the Father’s eyes as I navigate the challenges of a year of volunteer service.

Showing mercy in our every action is not an easy task. As humans, we are selfish. We hold grudges. We refuse to forgive. We have a hard time being generous. Maybe we think people “deserve” the situations or problems they have. But when we consider how absolutely merciful God is with us, how He gives all and forgives all to the point of sacrificing His own life, we realize how vital it is to practice showing mercy if we are to truly become like Christ. We certainly won’t become perfect overnight. But this week, go out of your way to show mercy to someone--smile at that annoying co-worker, or buy a few extra cans for the food pantry, or forgive someone who has wronged you. Next week, do two things, and the week after that, three things. Ask God to give you the grace to take the opportunities to show mercy and make the most of them, and before you know it, you’ll become a more merciful person!

-Amy Goudreau, CCSC Member 2015-201

Member Story: Called to Serve

My name is Phillip Koski and I am Service Corps member at the Western New York Law Center in downtown Buffalo where I assist an attorney with foreclosure and surplus monies cases. I also participate in our CLARO sessions, a clinic held twice a week to assist visitors with consumer issues. I fill out an intake form with each visitor and am able to be the first person at the clinic to sit down and talk with them about their consumer issue.

Throughout my service year, I have been shocked by the amount of direct contact that I have had as a paralegal with clients, banks, and banks’ attorneys. Coming into this experience I was worried about becoming merely a paper pusher because I would be under an attorney, but in reality the communicating is split up between us. In most cases I can say I talk to the client more than the attorney does because she is busy reviewing/writing paperwork. This has allowed me to really personalize my work and to understand that my everyday tasks have a profound impact on real lives. It’s also been a surprise to hear how grateful people are for our help. They really appreciate our generosity and the fact that we not only help them solve the issue, but that we walk them through the process every step of the way.

My biggest challenge is that as a paralegal, my work is very interdependent with my attorney. Prior to this experience I was used to (and preferred) working on my own tasks on my own time. This job does not function in that way whatsoever. When I was first assigned to attorney Jordan Zeranti, I was extremely nervous. I was not used to having to work so closely with another person, especially someone that I had only known for a couple of weeks. Over time she and I quickly developed a great working relationship, where our work styles differed, but our personalities really clicked. Throughout my time here at the Law Center, Jordan and I have become friends, and that makes adjusting to new cases and circumstances so much more comfortable.

Another massive challenge I have had this year was investing myself in this community. The political climate here in Buffalo is the opposite of what I experience in Florida. The communities here have so much diversity, yet so much segregation. Being on Buffalo’s West Side has been a real gem because of the opportunity to be placed in the middle of diversity. Being in a place that is so different from what I am used to has forced me to become more observant, and, along those lines, being from a different place allows me to see things that people embedded in this community have never noticed.

Living in a working poor community has very much changed my perception of wealth, society, and what we should be called to. It has recently become incredibly popular to oppose wealth, but I do not oppose anyone for merely being wealthy (regardless of how that wealth was obtained). Society teaches us from birth that money and things are success and happiness. It is morally wrong when people have mansions all over the place, but there are people on street corners without a bed. It’s also given me a new perspective of beauty. The well-off cover themselves in makeup, sunglasses, jewelry, etc., but there is nothing more beautiful than, through the pain, putting on the most natural of smiles.

I stood on a corner on the West Side, Grant and Arkansas. Across the street there was a man dealing drugs, a couple of people came up to me panhandling, and the buildings were deteriorated. As I looked around I thought to myself, “I could not imagine the fear a child has to grow up in such a neighborhood.” I did not recognize the area as one that was the great nation I constantly hear about. That is not an area that I would label “A Work in Progress,” it is an area that society and government have completely abandoned.

That experience has really led to me feeling called to work for these individuals, especially children. I have been accepted into the Loyola University Chicago Opportunities in Catholic Education where I will be teaching 2nd-5th grade at St. Benedict the African School in the Englewood neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago in the fall. Englewood has an unemployment rate over 20%, a poverty rate around 44%, and the average household income is only $21,000/year. I feel called to work with children in a community school where we work with families rather than just students.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” -  Matthew 5:3

-Phillip Koski, CCSC Member 2015-2016