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The Spirit of Sister Leo’s Cookies

By November 22, 2017 One Comment

Every morning among all my email is a small gem: a blessing from the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids. Mostly penned by Maxine Shonk, OP, the blessings focus on a characteristic of God and how that part of God’s multitudinous character models and transforms us; for example:

May the God of Transition be with you, inviting you to the new and the unknown where God waits to spring to life in you. May your willingness to be changed bring you ever nearer to the constancy of God, the one who was and is and will forever be your God. May your openness draw others to see God in their own transitions. May the God of Transition bless you.

Or this one:

May God the Teacher bless you with a thirst for all that is to be known of goodness and truth, of challenge and invitation. May this God pour into you divine instruction, revealing to you what is right and holy so that you may both live and communicate a sense of justice and peace to a waiting world. May God the Teacher be with you all your days.

During some parts of the year, email subscribers to these blessings also receive stories about Dominican sisters who have reached milestones in their ministries, stories which chronicle the ways in which God has work in equally multitudinous ways through these women religious.

One of my favorites is Sister Leo Mergener, who worked in a children’s home in the 1940s and 1950s. She was chastised for giving the children too many cookies and told to limit them to only one a day. In response, Sister Leo began baking the biggest possible cookies she could. As per instructions, the children only received one daily cookie—but what a cookie it was!

I love the spirit of Sister Leo’s cookies: the way they proclaim the abundant life, the way they insist that God’s extravagant love finds tangible expressions in the way we interact with and serve one other.

My mother would have found a kindred spirit in Sister Leo. When I graduated from college, my parents hosted a party for me—at which appeared 13 cakes.  I don’t think that 13 cakes was the original plan. My mother’s initial concept for the party was something simple and welcoming: in her words, sandwiches, “finger food,” and cake, all served in the comfort of our house and backyard.  Her idea was to let people choose from several cakes (because people should have a choice), and as those were finished, to bring out several more—a never-ending rotation of baked hospitality.  My mother was a major proponent (and a living embodiment) of what she often urged me to cultivate as I was growing up: “a kind and gracious spirit.” So, somehow (and I think her friends brought a few to “help”), the 13 cakes ultimately materialized.  And, although many people attended the party, we did, needless to say, have quite a bit of cake left over.

My mother didn’t care, offering one of her trademark comments: “it’s always better to offer too much than too little.”

The flip side is that abundance without action is waste.  About a year after my mother died quite unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm, I faced a task that proved much harder than I had anticipated:  I spent an afternoon cleaning out her standing freezer.  She had fully stocked it only days before her death, in anticipation of all the meals she would prepare.  In the year that followed, my father had rarely, if ever, opened it.  Instead, I stood that day in the cold garage and took each piece of meat, now brown and freezer-burned, and placed it in garbage bags, reminded of what she would never do again.  All that food, all those meals, so much a part of my mother’s generous spirit—gone.  Those things that could have nourished someone, ruined and beyond using.

And isn’t the same thing true of the abundance of our own lives? Perhaps we are commanded to love God and each other with all our heart and soul and mind and strength because God knows that if we don’t, the magnitude of that sad and sorry waste will be very great indeed. A freezer-burned life.

After all, we believe in a God who not only feeds the multitudes, but makes sure there are leftovers. There’s always enough.

In this week of Thanksgiving, then, may we proclaim God’s lavish abundance in word and deed, in the giving of ourselves and of really big cookies.


Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.

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