Dominican Sister of Hope Sylvia Bielen, OP often finds herself reflecting. Living independently at ninety years old, she has embraced a few important lessons: she treasures the advice of people her age and older. She relishes memories of her grandmother’s fresh baked bread, or of the lush American Sycamore trees that lined her parents’ block. She makes extra time to connect with the Gospels. And, at the end of it all, she finds joy, peace, and a stronger spirituality than ever.
Below, Sister Sylvia shares her secrets for enriching her spirituality, and her life, every day.
1. Think of Memories
“The older I get, the more I’m thinking of the past,” Sister Sylvia shares. “It’s invigorating for me to go back to these memories; they bring nothing but smiles.” As Sister thinks back to her love of playing in the snow or of learning to sew doll clothing, she doesn’t just feel happy; she feels grateful.
Sometimes, hindsight is a perfect tool to use for prayers of thanksgiving. When you recall happy memories, what makes your heart overflow with gratitude? Take a moment to thank God for those today.
2. Turn to the Gospel
Sister Sylvia once went on a retreat where she was encouraged to not just reflect on the Gospels, but to imagine herself in the stories interacting with Jesus. Picturing herself as the woman in the Bible who longed to touch Jesus was especially powerful for her.
Beyond reading the Gospel, how can you find a new way to connect with scripture today? Pick a story and imagine yourself in it walking beside Jesus; you might be surprised to see where this new way of prayer leads.
3. Use Your Imagination
“Switching your mindset helps creativity,” Sister Sylvia shares. As an artist, it’s especially generative for her to use her imagination in order to fuel her painting. Once, on a retreat, she was inspired by another sister who (playfully) imagined herself as an apple. Other times, Sister Sylvia will think back to fond memories and use her imagination to recreate them, whether it’s fresh-baked bread on her grandmother’s kitchen table or the way the rain sounded as it hit the roof of her parents’ front porch.
Evoking sights, smells, sounds, and tactile experiences can help spark your imagination in a whole new way, thereby producing a deeper presence in the now and a stronger gratefulness for memories of the past.
4. Listen to Others
It sounds like obvious advice, but, in our busy lives, listening to others isn’t always on the top of our priority list.
As Sister Sylvia suggests, practicing true listening is a vital way to be present to those around us, and to connect with God.
“I’m learning to listen to the other people with whom I live,” Sister Sylvia admits. She concedes that talking comes more naturally to her than listening, but, the more she listens, the more she is able to embrace others and share in the conversation rather than dominating it.
5. Be in the Now
“At this age of ninety, you can’t predict too much for the future,” Sister Sylvia says. “Now, it’s all about being in the now and making the best of it.”
Much of our day consists of a means to an end: commuting to work, waiting in line at the grocery store, preparing meals or tidying our homes. When we stop thinking of all these as processes and instead enjoy them as the “main event,” presence comes naturally.
“Even if you’re in line at the grocery store, just enjoy being there,” Sister Sylvia advises.
6. Recognize Grace
When Sister Sylvia reflects on her own vocation, she is sometimes awed. She went from being a woman who didn’t think of entering the convent, to being instantly interested after reading the biography of Saint Therese, the Little Flower.
Almost suddenly, her call to become a sister became clear to her.
“It’s pure grace of God to want to do that,” Sister Sylvia says.
Where do you see “pure grace” working in your life?
7. Abandon Apprehension and Reconnect with Someone You Love
Sometimes, after we haven’t touched base for a while, it becomes awkward to rekindle contact with old friends. Sister Sylvia has learned to abandon apprehension on this front. When a former student reached out to her and asked to have lunch, she wondered if they would have anything to talk about, if she would recognize the student fifty years later, etc.
The luncheon, she reports, was “wonderful.” Her worry was for naught. Consider who you call or write to today, no apprehension allowed.
8. Be Happy with Simplicity
“After the Depression, life was very simple,” Sister Sylvia shares. Gifts like pencils were appropriate for Christmas, and they were well-appreciated. Today, life feels more convoluted, but revising simplicity can lead to a deeper spirituality.
“We got so much joy out of new pencils, or a new doll dress,” Sister recalls.
What small treasures give you joy today?
9. Cultivate New Interests
Since living on her own, Sister Sylvia has fostered a new interest in cooking. She watches cooking shows, researches new recipes, and isn’t afraid to take a risk. “I can really cook up a storm!” she shares.
No matter what your age or lifestyle, there is always a new passion worth cultivating. There’s no need to become a savant: putting some extra time and effort into a new interest can renew your spirit and reveal talents you didn’t know you had.
10. Have Patience with Yourself
Sister Sylvia is content with her life, but she’s honest about the realities of aging.
“I used to have so much energy, and now I get tired after I make my bed,” Sister laments. Sometimes, at night, her dishes don’t all get done; so she does them in the morning.
Regardless of how much energy we have, we are always going to make mistakes, be slower than we’d like, and experience hiccups in life. In every case, patience is needed.
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