‘Be unafraid to follow in her footsteps’: a reflection on the Feast of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
When the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin was being created, our Architect Jack Kelly and Liturgical Designer Father Mark Joseph Costello told us it needed to be filled with symbols of Mother Theodore’s spirituality.
So, yes, you’ll find crucifixes and statues of Mary and Joseph in her shrine, but you also will discover the leaves of Indiana embedded in the panels covering the windows. Her coffin is placed under a wooden canopy of beautifully carved Linden leaves. And the windows in the room where her body lies reflect stained glass images of water and dandelions, echinacea and linden leaves.
If a symbol is a visible sign that represents something abstract, something deeper, then these images truly were the spiritual symbols of her life. As our Gospel reading suggests, these were the treasures of her heart. For it seems to me that Saint Mother Theodore’s spirit was one with all of creation.
She certainly loved nature and these Woods. And God knows we have numerous quotes where she carries on about the beauty of the forests of Indiana or the little fishes she encountered in her ocean crossings.
Among my favorites, written shortly after her arrival in 1840, is this reflection:
“As to our garden and yard, we have all the woods. And the wilderness is our only cloister, for our house is like an oak tree planted therein.”
Carrying the Woods inside
In my thinking, she didn’t just love nature and these Woods. Somehow, she carried these Woods inside her. The Woods shaped her, deepened her love of God and of her sisters and other companions. The Woods fortified her belief that all would be well. She took to heart the message found today in the reading from Sirach, “Trust in God, and God will help you.”
How else was she able to say:
“We had but one dollar remaining … and we did not know where to get a cent for the want of the house. Still, how could I mistrust Divine Providence?”
I suspect that we who gather here today — all of the regular inhabitants of this place and those of you elsewhere joining via livestream this morning as far away as Taiwan — you, too, know moments of oneness with nature, with all of creation, with each other.
Valarie Kaur (Core), the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, who follows the Sikh faith, talks about wonder as a sacred practice of her faith. She explains this as the ordinary moments in our lives: “when we are arrested by the sunset or swell of music or your child’s face, and the line between you and everything blurs.”
These are not throw-away moments, she says, they are actually portals into the sacred nature of things. “They are tastes of the truth of our Oneness, that we are part of everything, everywhere, all at once.”
Valarie challenges us to remember the truth of our interconnectedness and move through the world from a place of love. We must train our eyes to see others with wonder, to embrace them as kin. To say to the leaves on the trees as well as the people in our lives: “You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
Life Lessons from Mother Theodore
This is what Mother Theodore’s life teaches me. Her response to the people and circumstances of her life is training me to embrace others as kin. How else could she write the following to her sisters in 1846 as they were on the verge of leaving Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. They were making plans to move their motherhouse to another diocese because the bishop here was absolutely threatening their vision of who the Sisters of Providence should be. Here is what she wrote:
“We think that before taking the final step it would be more according to the spirit of God to renew again our petitions to his Lordship, the Bishop of Vincennes, without mention of the past.”
In August, those of us gathered for the national assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious heard from Brian Swimme, a professor and writer who has devoted his life to telling the Universe Story. Brian shared his belief that relationship is the most fundamental power in the universe.
And to prove his point, he related the fact that for three billion years, life on Earth consisted solely of unicellular (you) organisms. But then, some 700 million years ago, these unicellular organisms entered into relationships with each other. And here is the great mystery, he said, “over time, these relationships led to oak trees and elephants.”
He purports that these unicellular organisms were drawn by sacred mystery, and because they were bold enough to follow that path, they constructed millions upon millions of animals and plant species.
This is what Mother Theodore’s life teaches me. She reminds me to be bold enough to follow the path that will bring new life for my brothers and sisters of today and tomorrow, and those brothers and sisters must include all of creation. We are here today because of the decisions Mother Theodore and others made 183 years ago to be the face of Providence, to be the face of God’s loving care in and for the world.
What if she had not said:
“If we cannot do any good here, you know our agreement, we will return to our own country.”
Since Sept. 1, we in this faith community have been celebrating the Season of Creation. We will close this special time of prayer tomorrow on the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis is the saint for which our current Pope took his name, the pope who has set into motion a clarion call for an ecological conversion.
He is clear that we must be bold enough to transform our own hearts, our own lifestyles and move outward to change the public policies that keep in place systems that oppress Earth and its peoples.
Again, I hear our own Saint say to us as she did back in 1852:
“When we compare the little frame house in which we were received in charity 12 years ago with the splendid building erected here now, we clearly see the effects of those powerful words, ‘Increase and multiply.’ … Out exterior improvements are astonishing; but does our interior advancement correspond with the exterior?“
Being Bold Enough
What transformation of heart and lifestyle will we be bold enough to undertake so that we, in fact, leave this planet in better condition for the young people who are gathered with us this morning?
And again from Mother Theodore, this time in 1844:
The most painful sight I saw in New Orleans was the selling of slaves … This spectacle oppressed my heart. … Lo! I said to myself, these Americans, so proud of their liberty, thus make game of the liberty of others … I would have wished to buy them all that I might say to them, ‘Go! Bless Providence. You are free!”
What actions will we be bold enough to take to help change the systems that oppress, so that all peoples, that all of creation can be free to live and move in peace and harmony.
We often say to each other of Mother Theodore, “We are walking in the footsteps of a saint.” She herself is a symbol of holiness, of what is possible if we but trust in the Providence of God. She allowed these Woods to shape her, to deepen her love of God and of her sisters and other companions. The Woods helped to fortify her belief that all would be well.
So, let us be unafraid to follow in her footsteps, to let these Woods shape us and help us face the existential issues of our day with confidence in that Providence that so far has never failed us. We who love her know she will be with us every step of the way. Wherever you are today, hear her say, “If you lean with all your weight upon Providence you will find yourselves well supported.”