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Nun Who Urges Change Has a Faithful Following

March 25, 1992|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — Having once been a workaholic herself, Sister Therese Even knows that the busy people who attend her lectures may be too stressed out to really hear what she has to say about how to improve family relationships.

So the Minnesota nun, who began paying more attention to her own personal relationships after going through a 12-step recovery program, always takes time at the start of her lectures to put her audience in a receptive mood.

There didn't seem to be any resistance among the parishioners at St. John Neumann Catholic Church when Even, who attracted about 600 people to each of four evening lectures last week, asked them to close their eyes, breathe deeply and clear their minds of any negative thoughts that might interfere with her positive message.

Even--who also addressed sizable audiences at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Tustin during her visit to Orange County--found answers in therapy as well as prayer when she went through a period of soul-searching about 12 years ago. And now she brings a unique mix of psychology and Scripture to the lectures she gives across the country in churches of all denominations.

The 66-year-old nun of the School Sister of Notre Dame said in an interview that she tends to attract large audiences because people in today's high-stress society have "a spiritual hunger," and they're frustrated by family problems they don't know how to fix.

She encourages people to slow down, take stock and make changes that will result in richer relationships.

Charlene Meade, a 40-year-old Irvine resident who is married, has two children and works full time in the insurance industry, said it wasn't easy to set aside four evenings to attend the lectures at St. John Neumann. But she's glad she did.

She said she needed to get back in touch with her spiritual side and put her priorities in order because she'd been "obsessing on problems that weren't really important."

The lectures gave her "more of an appreciation for what I have and more of a commitment to make sure my kids get what they need emotionally and spiritually."

She also realized she had a tendency to be too tough on herself and others--to figure, "If you have too many black marks on your chalkboard, there's no way you're ever going to get to heaven."

Listening to Even's talks made her feel more forgiving toward herself and others and gave her "renewed enthusiasm for life," she said. "It reminded me that we're the ones who make a difference in our own lives."

That's just what Even wanted her listeners to learn.

Standing at the pulpit of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in a businesslike suit, she told those in the audience that they can transform their lives by substituting positive affirmations for any negative messages they carry from childhood.

"So many of our lives are filled with negative experiences that hurt us. We lack security. We can't love the way we want to, and that's what keeps us from living fully," Even said.

However, she added, as adults, "we can change our behavior by feeding new data into our subconscious mind. The messages we give ourselves are the most important messages we're going to hear. The positive will win over the negative."

She stressed the importance of building self-esteem as a prerequisite for developing strong relationships because, she said, you can't give--or receive--love without feeling good about yourself.

When she addresses parishioners in a deep, soothing voice, Even projects a quiet empathy that says, "I've been there." And she shares enough of herself to convince people that her advice comes from the hard-earned lessons of personal experience as well as the Gospel.

In an interview between lectures, Even said she was already traveling around the country giving talks on relationships when she realized about 12 years ago that she had a lot of work to do on her own.

"Everybody thought I had it all together, but I didn't," she said.

She devoted all her time to her work--at the expense of her relationships--because she was always trying to prove herself, to make up for her lack of self-esteem by overachieving.

She said she never turned down requests for help from other nuns. "I wanted people to like me and accept me, so I'd do anything they asked of me. Then I'd resent them because I felt used. I was saying 'yes' on the outside and 'no' on the inside."

Through counseling, she discovered that she needed to come to terms with her feelings toward her parents--a father who was a workaholic and a mother who kept a tight rein on her emotions, especially anger.

Even's therapist told her that she was "spiritualizing" her anger toward her parents and others because she had never learned to express it.

"I'd bury my feelings and just forgive. But forgiveness is the last thing you do," Even explained. "First you have to get in touch with your feelings."

She finally did, and that enabled her to make peace with her parents, to increase her self-esteem and to keep her work from interfering with her relationships.

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