Advent: watchfulness, waiting and wanting

In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.  

painting-purple-flowers-tall-grass-ocean-sunrise
Psalm 130 by Janice Little

Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.

My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.

I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” 

The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.  

We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.

Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller.  And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled the desire for the God to whom we belong.

A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.

In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives. 

Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.

This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.  

In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-baby

Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

We need each other, not more consumption

Every year around this time, companies ramp up marketing campaigns that do their best to connect contentment with consumerism. Feeling lonely? Buy a candy cane latte. Feeling grief? Buy more holiday decorations. Feeling afraid and anxious as you watch the daily news in a world plagued by family separations, endless wars and mass shootings? Buy this year’s feel-good holiday movie.

we-need-each-other-people-tree-rainbow
Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

These solutions to our loneliness, sold on every corner of our commute, might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic — fixes so profoundly lacking in their shallow attempts to remedy the deep spiritual crisis that so many of us are experiencing in our so-called “developed” capitalist society.

For nearly seven of the past years, I have lived in Bolivia, South America, and formed community with Bolivian families and friends whose holiday traditions have yet to be consumed by a Western capitalist definition of Christmas.

Living in another culture has challenged me to reflect on the cultural traditions in my own, especially around the holiday season.

I know personally many Bolivian children who now expect a Christmas tree and presents from their parents because that is how they saw Christmas defined on TV. Though their families may have never before celebrated with a tree and material gifts, the pressure to conform to a traditional capitalist Christmas grows every year.

Unfortunately, what we often fail to recognize about the global push towards development under capitalism is that it also includes an increase in consumerism. As many of us in the so-called “developed” world work slowly to reduce our own consumption, large corporations are working at a much more accelerated pace to inspire more consumption in other parts of the world. But replicating our materialistic lifestyles on a global scale is simply a model our planet cannot sustain.

And now, as I think about how we got to where we are as a global community, I wonder: where has this constant push towards endless growth, development and consumerism brought us? Are we more generous? Are we more empathetic? Are we less lonely?

Do our cultural holiday traditions in affluent Catholic communities in the United States reflect the values that we hold? If not, why not? How might we transform them? How have we allowed capitalism to uproot our Christian values?

When I reflect back on my own experiences of exchanging gifts around Christmas time, what I value most about those memories was the opportunity to know and be known.

Isn’t that what we all really want, to feel known and to know that we are not alone? When we experience the excitement of unwrapping a present, aren’t we really hoping to unwrap the gift of love?

We may be accustomed to the instant gratification of material things, but we can definitely live without them. We cannot live without each other.

As the wisdom of many Bolivian friends of mine has taught me, when we feel afraid, anxious and alone, we need each other — we need community, not more consumption.

This holiday season we must ask ourselves, are our holiday traditions feeding our hunger for connection and community? How might we liberate ourselves from the stress, distraction and debt of holiday spending and invest instead in radical inclusion, expanding our community to include those living on the margins? How might we reduce our dependence on the sins of a corrupt capitalist system and instead grow in interdependence with one another?

One way to start is by collectively engaging our communities in these questions. In sharing these questions together, we may open ourselves to hearing the needs of our neighbors. Doing so could enable us to share the gifts of love and presence and, in exchange, liberate us from the sins of consumerism.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Meat

When I walked the Camino de Santiago, I survived on a steady diet of ham sandwiches and beer.

I subjected my body to a pack that weighed more than was healthy for my frame, moved my feet over miles of terrain, felt my muscles fatigue and my flesh blister and bleed.

Every day, somewhere along the trail, I’d join other pilgrims for lunch. I’d order slices of the flesh of some other animal between bread, slobbered with mayonnaise. Between gulps of beer, I’d chew. But I never felt satisfied. I was constantly famished from the exertion of the pilgrimage, from the challenge of bringing my body closer to a holy place.

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Good Letters- The Image Journal blog. Continue reading here.]

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Beyond thank you

What is it about the nature of human gratitude that propels us to make offerings and manifest our feeling in the material world? Why do we tend to create and extend more goodness to others as a way to express our appreciation?

Lately, I am marveling in the mystery of human goodness and how it connects to gratitude. When we we say thank you, we share goodness and the goodness expands. Every gesture and offer of appreciation seems to ripple outward, increasing gladness and gratitude. And, part of what’s great is that no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing “Thank you!” There are no limits to sharing the goodness.

It’s an an ancient human phenomenon, this tendency of ours to give back and share once we’ve known a blessing. We find evidence of it in Psalm 116 as the psalmist expresses a longing to “repay” God for the goodness they have known:

How can I repay the LORD

for all the great good done for me?

I will raise the cup of salvation

and call on the name of the LORD.

I will pay my vows to the LORD

in the presence of all his people.

(Psalm 116: 12-14)

I love this adoration moment video from my community. It offers you an invitation to pray with the Psalm in union with the sacredness of our adoration chapel in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Here, in our Franciscan household, we’re doing food prep and working out our menu for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving celebration. Just like many people in the United States, we’re going to create and offer more goodness to others in order to express our gratitude for the goodness we’ve experienced. We’ll savor what’s delicious and fill our bellies. And in the midst of it all, we’ll somehow increase the gratitude that warms our happy hearts.

For many, the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas combined) is all about goodness and gratitude. In the coming weeks, many of us will bake sweets for neighbors and colleagues. We’ll offer gifts to loved ones and host celebrations for our family and friends. We’ll send out thank you cards and gratitude letters. Again and again, we’ll create more things, and as we do we’ll share the goodness we’ve experienced.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

This time of year, many people are also increasing their acts of service and charitable giving, and each time they do they are sharing from their abundance — often out of appreciation.

Here’s a few ways you could give your gratitude: GivingTuesday is next Tuesday, and it’s a great time to share your wealth and love. My community is raising money for our ministry fund. A nonprofit that I’ve been involved with since 2004, Waking the Village in Sacramento, California, is opening a new Tubman House site in January. It will serve 16 children and youth leaving homelessness behind, putting their strengths to work in pursuing education, career, and wellness. They are in need of donations to outfit bedrooms, kitchens, classrooms, and family rooms and have created an Amazon Wishlist. (One warning about charitable giving and service this time of year: please avoid making the struggles of others into your special holiday entertainment.)

For all the goodness you’re offering to others, for the ways you’re sharing your abundance and expressing your gratitude, I say, thank you! Thank you, good people, for extending the goodness that you have known to others and for warming others with gladness and appreciation!

Happy Thanksgiving!

What it takes to see God’s reign

This coming Sunday is one of my favorite feasts in the Church year: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is also known as the Feast of Christ the King.

On this feast I celebrate something I believe, deeply: from the macro of the cosmos to the micro of our hearts, the love of Christ prevails and has authority.

Photo by Brett Ritchie on Unsplash

We ponder the messiness of the Kingdom of God — which is now and not yet — in this blog. God’s reign of peace and justice was established by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it’s close at hand and not yet fully known. It’s the basis for living the Gospel, for advocating for peace, justice, and mercy being triumphant, and working tirelessly to serve all in God’s creation, and for honoring the dignity of every person. (The Kingdom of God is such an important theme on this blog that you’ll find some party music for this celebration in the archives!) As we experience the messiness of Gospel living, the tension, struggle and conversion offered to us each day, building up the reign of God is what we’re up to.

Needless to say, I have a lot of passion for the Kingdom of God. Naturally then, I was thrilled to be invited to preach for this feast by an organization I appreciate and admire: Catholic Women Preach.

As I prayed and studied the readings for the feast, I noticed that I felt invited to shift my perspective over and over, to look at the Scripture passages from different points of view.

I ended up preaching all about how a change in perspective is needed in order to see that the Kingdom of God nearby.

I’d love to get your perspective: What gets in the way of seeing the Kingdom of God around you?

Openness to the mystery of other people

Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash

Gazing toward the brightly lit horizon the other day, I noticed an expansiveness, an opening. Beyond what I could see was a mystery. Bigger than the dances of shadows and light, the frozen November snow and the clouds hanging out their hues of pink and gray, was the power of possibility, the rise of potential.

Looking at that sky, I thought of the formations of birds I saw flying across wide open skies a few days prior. I had traveled in a car from one Midwestern city to another with my attention cycling between the other Franciscan sister near me, the wonders on the other side of the chilled glass and the condition of my own body and mind. Even though the drive was nearly a week ago, I still wonder about it. I wonder where the birds had come from and where they were going. I wonder how long it takes for them to travel their distance. I wonder if they feel exhausted. I wonder if, for them, the sky feels big.

In each moment — in each expanse — I notice that I am open to the possibilities, that I don’t have a narrow view. My mind is not made up. I am open to learning or discovering. I am open to the largeness of mystery. I feel small, and in the smallness I feel a freedom, a gladness.

And, I can see that this disposition is different from how I relate to people, myself included.

The Gospel demands that we love God, ourselves and our neighbors with all that we are. The nature of love, I am learning, is allowing the space for the other to develop. To be a mystery. To be surprised. Love lets people change and grow.

Even though there are people I’ve known for years and years, I need to resist the temptation to assume they’ll react a certain way to anything I say or do. I need to let go of expectations that they’ll be in a mood I’ve encountered before or behave how they have in the past. Although every person is allowed to live a life made of patterns and habits, it’s not my duty to subject them to any traps or predictions. I’ve realized how much I hate it when others typecast me. Why would I ever do that to anyone else?

Similarly, I am trying to free myself from traps of thinking about myself. I am learning that a way to love myself is to allow space to grow and change. This is actually part of self-acceptance, of giving God a chance to work out conversions in my mind, heart and actions. So what that I have struggled to be kind, or gentle, or punctual, or tidy in the past? Perhaps I will be surprised with ease this one time.

I am thrilled to have learned a new way to love myself and others. I am excited to discover that a grace that companions love is the freedom to learn and grown.

And, I wonder what sort of beauty I will see if I allow myself to gaze upon the mystery of each person with the same sort of openness I see in the sky?

At a table with other sinners, the Eucharist unites

The first person who taught me eucharistic theology was my Lutheran grandmother. Although I have no memories of her ever uttering the words “eucharistic” or “theology,” she taught me in the way that the best teachers do: by being a living example.

Grandma’s house usually smelled like freshly baked bread. Her counter was often dusted with a layer of flour and she frequently had dough under her fingernails. My grandma structured much of her time around a pattern of stirring, kneading, baking, cooking or serving meals and snacks. No matter who came through the sunny porch, she offered the person a warm hello and an embrace.

Nearly every day at noon, neighborhood kids (along with me, my siblings and cousins) and farmers and friends would squeeze around a large table, where there was always…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Encouragement when the world feels like a mess

If you’re like me — and most people I know — the world feels like a mess.

Maybe you’re heartbroken and horrified by the latest news coming out of Syria, by the continued slaughter of human life.

Perhaps you’re worried about loved ones impacted by the fires in California — or you are one of the millions of people struggling to make it without clean air, electricity or safety. Maybe you’ve lost your home.

Or you may be the person dealing with internal trial: health problems, financial challenges or splintered relationships. Maybe someone you love has recently died and the grief has you frozen in sorrow.

It could be that your Gospel living — your faithful walk with Christ — has you meeting roadblock after roadblock. Each detour and struggle has you feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere or making any progress. You are losing hope and confidence that you’re on the right path, that God wants you to proceed. You don’t know if you have any steam left in you for loving others.

No matter which circumstances have you carrying a cross, here’s what I want to assure you today: you are not alone. Jesus is with you in all of it. The community of Christ cares for you.

To boost you up and impart consolation, I’m offering some inspiration in the mess. Here’s some goodness that keeps me going.

THE WORD OF GOD

Much of the Bible contains encouragement to persevere, to trust, to remain faithful and accept the cost of loving God and neighbor.

I’ve heard a lot of people proclaim that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” which is a cliché I dislike, because it suggests that we (individually) must handle the hard times, the painful parts of living. But such a sentiment doesn’t match what I have come to know: we are strengthened by God and community, we all are in need of help and support.

Here’s a verse that agrees: only if we rely on God, if we turn to Christ, will we be able to handle what’s tough:

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”1 Corinthians 10:13

Scripture reminds us that a paradox of the spiritual life (and discipleship, for that matter) is accepting hardships as part of the price we pay for growing closer to God; once we embrace our weakness, we’re able to know strength.

“Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Plus, Scripture assures us that God remains with us; God is the true source of our strength.

“I command you: be strong and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

FROM THE MESSY JESUS BUSINESS ARCHIVES

A poem, “encouragement” (

overwhelmed, I wonder/gazing out the window, I sigh …”

“As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry. Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond.  The challenge is to respond with love.

On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament. I begged God for mercy. I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed. As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.

Soon after, I am with my students. I decide to be real with them. ‘I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets …'”

“The myth of the self made person and the true demand of discipleship” (

“You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person.”

“It’s not our job to change people”  (

“I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe.”

MUSIC

“Hope and healing play list”

“When we serve others we touch the wounds of Christ; we encounter the heartache and pain of our neighbors. When we read the news headlines right alongside the promises of Christ, it can be tempting to doubt that the Incarnation really changed things and made the world better. Our consciousness about global oppression and the weight of natural disasters can be crushing, discouraging.

One way that I keep my eyes open to the Light is to tune into songs that feed me with encouragement and strength. I want to have music in my head that keeps me singing with hopeful joy. I want to dance to beats that help me persevere and trust that God’s in charge, that the fullness of God’s goodness is on its way.”

Plus, much of the music by Liz Vice boosts my spirit. Here’s one gem for you:

THE BIBLE, AGAIN

Praying with the Gospel stories and the lives of the saints could also offer you a lot of inspiration and encouragement.

This lovely prayer video, made by my friend Susan Francois, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, reminds us of the Gospel call to persist for peace and justice:

Lastly, this passage from Romans reminds us that much goodness is ahead:

Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

What gives you encouragement and hope in the mess? Share with other Messy Jesus Business readers in the comments below.

Finding the faces of God in the dark

Lately, a memory keeps surfacing.

rocking-chair-dark-small-window-light
Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

I am struggling with my mental health and, almost before it begins, I am having a particularly hard day. Sitting in my chair, trying to get started, I call my counselor for help. I tell him, “All I have on my schedule today is an appointment with my psychiatrist. That’s all I have the energy for. Can I do that and nothing else? Can I skip eating?” He replied, “You have to eat. It could be just cheese and crackers or a peanut butter sandwich, but you have to eat something.”

So that’s what I did that day. I went to my appointment and I ate a simple bowl of ramen. I was practicing self-care in the best way I could.

On my spiritual path, through depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts, I sat in the darkness for a long time. And I discovered the God Who Stays. I didn’t know where I was going when I found this God who just stayed with me in the darkness. I also gained comfort from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

If I am having a good day, God is here. If I am unable to get out of the chair, if I want to drop off the ends of the earth, God is here. I love how brilliant this psalmist is! I can’t see through the darkness around me, but God can. God sees me! God knows me always.

Gradually, as I came to a little more light and love in my life, I began to discover the God Who Heals. This is an active, moving God who groans when I groan and who breathes life into my broken bones. Paul says in Romans 8:22, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” The God Who Heals knows my pain intimately, but she also knows light and helps me reach toward it.

This memory is a good example of the God Who Heals. I am journaling and working on my low self-esteem. I know that I hate myself and I want that to change. So I write down one small step that I can take to improve it. I decide I am going to make a commitment to brushing my teeth twice a day. This seems like a basic self-care that I don’t always practice. When I tell a friend of my commitment, she asks me why I chose that action. I say, “Because I don’t want to be so gross and I want to be cleaner for others,” to which she replies, “Oh, I thought it was because you are treating yourself as precious.” Whoa! I never thought of that reason, but yes, I am treating myself as precious.

The God Who Heals is the one who is with me as I slowly try to care for myself. He helps me to see myself as precious and is patient when I am incapable.

woman-lying-in-lilacs
Sister Sarah Hennessey

Now that I am in a steady place of recovery and have more joy in my life, I am becoming acquainted with the God Who Loves. I feel that love as I face a new challenge, as I reach out to a friend in need, and as I walk in nature. The God Who Loves helps me to see myself with gentle eyes and to hold compassion for the world around me.

Recently, I took a survey about myself that measured both my creative and reactive leadership characteristics. I then passed the survey on to 15 people with whom I have worked in a variety of capacities for their input. When I received the results, the data was reported as a graph. There was a clear pattern. For many of my creative abilities, I gave myself a low rating. Everyone else rated me much higher. The measurements for my reactive tendencies were the opposite. Negative traits were also assessed: I rated myself quite high while the others gave me a much lower score. It was a stunning picture in black and white of how my self-view varies from how other people see me. The facilitator who explained the results to me said that this was a quite common pattern, especially for women religious.

The God Who Loves sees me and knows me as I am. So do the God Who Stays and the God Who Heals. All of these images of God have been growing with me as I grow. God meets me exactly where I am and helps me to become more fully myself. As my spiritual path continues, all of these images stay with me and shape me. I am so curious.

I wonder what other faces of God I will meet.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

Missed connections and lonely souls

Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.

I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).

At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.

I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.

What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.

And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.

The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.

Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.

It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.

The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.

For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.

There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.

And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.

The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.

Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.

For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.

The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ.