A Balanced Life

by Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

Sister Mary O'Brien, C.P. lives her life with extraordinary grace. A Passionist Sister for 45 years she embodies the ideals of Elizabeth Prout, who founded the community in the nineteenth century. A deeply contemplative spirit animates her life of service to others as a retreat team member at Our Lady of Calvary Retreat House in Farmington, Connecticut and as Director of Novices for the North American Province of the Passionist Sisters. This contemplative spirit and the great compassion that she brings to all of her encounters with others emanates from her own experience of the cross in her life.

When Mary was a young woman she lost most of her hearing. This was a devastating loss for a woman with a brilliant mind and a deep love for good conversation. She was forced to rely more on her own inner resources. Over the years she grew to appreciate the richness of her own inner world and to grow in relationship with the God who was present to her there.

Our Lady of Calvary

Sr Mary at a retreatSister Mary came to Our Lady of Calvary Retreat in 1990 after living in England for twelve years while serving as a General Counselor. Our Lady of Calvary, which is owned and operated by the Passionist Sisters ministers primarily to women who come to the retreat house from throughout the state of Connecticut, southwestern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. Approximately 2300 women participate in programs and retreats at OLC each year. Retreat work was a new experience for Mary, but her background as an English teacher and a college professor were good preparation for a ministry, which requires good communication skills. Retreatants at Our Lady of Calvary look forward to hearing Mary speak. They appreciate her rich insights and her gentle wit. Scripture stories, especially ones about women, form the basis of Mary's preaching, but she is also just as likely to quote from Shakespeare or the poet Seamus Heaney.

Mary loves her ministry. "I love to be with the people. I love to watch the women relax as they enter into the retreat. Watching the healing that takes place during a retreat is an awesome thing. Witnessing the faith of the women increases my faith."

Working for the future

Sister Mary lives at St. Gabriel House, which is on the retreat house grounds in Farmington with two other sisters, one of whom is a novice. Mary finds accompanying new members as they prepare to give themselves to God as Passionist Sisters a challenging and at times a frightening experience. "I love it for the same reasons I love retreat work. I love that I am working for the future."

Mary's ministry to new members is integral to their future lives as Passionists. From her, new members learn about the history and traditions of Passionist life. With her they reflect on and learn from their experiences of living as members of a religious community. Mary accompanies new members to inter-community formation programs where they receive instruction in church history, theology, scripture, human relations and the vows.

Sr Mary and JakeMary is usually the first one up in the morning at St. Gabriel House. She makes the coffee and brings a cup of it with her into the little chapel where she begins her day with an hour of quiet prayer. After prayer with the community, breakfast and Mass at the parish church she works, either at the retreat house or in her office at home. Late in the afternoon, however, work is suspended and Mary goes for a walk with Jake. Jake is the community dog. When Mary walks with Jake she lets him choose the route. "I try to see things through his eyes and not my own. It stretches me and takes me out of myself. It is a spiritual experience. I love Jake."

In the evening after eating supper around the kitchen table with the rest of the community at St. Gabriel House Mary reads. The pile of books by her chair these days include the poems of Emily Dickinson, "1812 a Novel", a detective story, a book called "The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary", a theological book by Edward Schillebeeckx, an anthology of American verse and a book called "Of Passion and Folly: A Scriptural Foundation for Peace." Mary continues to feed her inner world.

A person can watch Mary and learn how to live life and grow old as a Passionist. A person can watch her and learn how to live a balanced life.

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