During my first visit to a foreign land there was an earthquake, but I was unaware of it until after the fact.
I was an exchange student, staying with a host family in Mexico City. Within the first few days that I was there adjusting to everything — change of language, culture, climate, lifestyle and landscape — the conversation at a family dinner turned to the event. I was asked if I had felt the tremors, if I had noticed the earth move. Only when prompted was I able to recall that I had felt something. Oh yeah, I admitted, but I assumed the ground was shaking from a jackhammer at the nearby construction site, I said. The earthquake was small, and nothing around me was familiar. I wasn’t surprised I that I didn’t notice the earthquake.
I’ve been in religious life for over 14 years now. It’s barely a scratch in the mystery of time. Compared to decades of love and service offered by my elders in community, who have lived vowed life for 50 or more years, I am a beginner. Yet, I am adjusted to the culture. I am familiar with the landscape. I am noticing the earthquakes.
On Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, I sat in front at my laptop in Chicago. Along with other members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I watched as our community president, Sr. Eileen McKenzie, stood at a podium in our dining room inside our motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and read an announcement. Familiar sisters were at dining room tables in the room with Sister Eileen, listening in, and several of us joined the meeting virtually. Through the window near me, heavy fog encircled the bare trees.
Through my headphones, I heard Sister Eileen tell us that our 141-year-old shared practice of round-the-clock adoration was about to drastically change… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Stress warning: Content includes suicidal thoughts.
What would you say if a friend with no religious affiliation asked you the simple question: How can I find God?
This is the scenario posed to the young and the old, the famous and the not-famous and those of a variety of religious preferences who contribute their voices to the book “How can I find God? The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question,” edited by Father James Martin, S.J.
The answers vary, as does the life experience of those who Martin questions. But a few themes do stand out, including the consideration that God is found in the people around us, the invisible love of God made visible, and in our own life experiences. The book also begs a poignant question: are we finding God or being found by God? Joan Chittister says, “No one can help a fish to find the ocean. The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.” She is proclaiming that God is all around us, already finding us, already in our grasp.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it more directly: “What do I do now that God has found me? … Such a God is not easily found because we cannot find that which as near to us as our next breath and as far from us as the silence that surrounds all language.” God, I know, has already found me, but may also remain elusive as mystery.
Maybe that’s because seeking and finding always go together. As Huston Smith says, “Finding God is not like finding a mislaid object, which ends the search.” Gregory of Nyssa put this point definitively: “To seek God is to find him; to find God is to seek him.”
I love these answers! They make me seek God even more. God has already found me and I wake up to that reality. I cannot find God like I find my lost hairbrush, because the mystery of God cannot be contained, and in the finding I discover more seeking. God is in the daily reality of my own life, in my particulars and in yours.
How would you answer this basic question: How can I find God?
I find God in my daily experiences and in the people around me, but I especially find God in suffering. Maybe suffering is the moment when I stop pretending everything is okay, become more honest and vulnerable and allow God to find me.
When I was 20, everything stopped making sense. I don’t remember the immediate event that caused it but I was curled up on the bed and I started to scream. I screamed so long that they called the college campus security to check on me. As I was screaming, I had a little conversation with God.
Me: God, I don’t think I can go on any longer. I think I need to die.
God: That way out is cheating. It’s not really an option.
Me: Then what can I do?
And then all the words stopped and I had a vision. I saw lava flowing freely. Then I saw lava crusted over. Like a video I had seen of a volcano exploding underwater, the fiery, red-hot river turned quickly to a black crust when it hit the cold water. The vision became an immediate knowing, the deepest truth I have ever known in my life. There is a place or time where God’s love flows endlessly. Here on Earth, that love gets blocked and crusted over. We are here on Earth to learn the not-so-simple lesson of how to love. This learning comes with the assurance that God’s love is holding us even through such pain.
That truth has stayed with me ever since. When I get lost and discouraged, when my lava-love gets crusted over, I know God’s love is stronger, holding me ‘till I can get found again. The people who love me help me to see God, especially when I cannot do it on my own.
Once, when I was in a deep depression, a sister in my community threw a lifeline to me. Knowing that I was having a hard time loving myself or feeling love of any kind, she said, “Let us love you until you are able to do it yourself again.” She and my other sisters, my family and my friends loved me back to life. They became the face of God to me.
I think that Allison Janik, a seventh grader, says its best: “If you talk to babies and they don’t talk back, you still know they love you. I think that’s how it is with God.” That’s how it is with God: an endless love-like a river of lava, even when you can’t hear or feel that love. Like the fish in the ocean, God is all around us.
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.
Throughout the United States we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday next week.
Some of us will attend parades or prayer services to feed our souls with the words of good speakers and the sound of great music. Many will participate in the National Day of Service. Others will watch television specials or talk to children about the goodness of cultural diversity. Maybe we’ll eat soul food or listen to Gospel music. Or perhaps we’ll learn about the current landscapes of inequality and injustice and loudly say “Amen” at the end of every prayer for social change.
Yet, I imagine that many (most?) of us will likely let the day go by without much consideration of why Dr. King was martyred, why we’re honoring him. Some of us will savor the benefit of a three-day weekend by shopping, binge-watching and catching up on sleep.
I get it. Our lives are packed and we keep a busy pace. Laboring for the reign of God with all our might in our little corners of the world wears us out. It takes a lot from us to work to make peace and justice as common as air. We’re tired, we’re spent. We need rejuvenation to fight the good fight day in and day out.
Yes, we need rest and renewal. But I would like to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not the day. That’s what the weekly sabbath is for. (Remember that commandment God gave us?)
So, here’s what I propose. It’s what I plan to do. I will empower King’s legacy, enable it to change me this time around. I will carry it with me through 2020 with less inadequate activisim and more openness to conversion. And, I invite you to join me in my simple plan.
Step 1.) I will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings or speeches. This might be his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. If I can’t read the speech carefully and studiously, I’ll listen to it. And, if I don’t have the time or energy to read an entire speech, I will read previous Messy Jesus Business posts dedicated to his legacy or at least consider some of the following quotes on war and peace (included here):
More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. “Don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have the compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Strength to Love, 13 April 1960
I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968
Step 2.) I will imagine a society constructed on the principles that King proclaimed and notice where I am challenged and disturbed. (After all, if I want to change the world, I must start by changing myself!)
I will pray, journal and/or do a lot of thinking related to King’s vision, looking to see how I get in the way of peace and justice flourishing. Here’s some questions I might start with: How would the circumstances of 2020 look differently if we took the principles of nonviolence to heart? What role could I play to dismantle racism and inequality? How do I need to change my mind, heart and behaviors so that the life I am living demonstrates that I truly believe love is the strongest power? How is the Spirit inviting me to grow and change so that I help create a world where there is more peace and justice for people of every race, class and creed?
Step 3.) In response to my reflection, I will envision myself changing my behaviors and then make a plan.
Perhaps I could explore new groups to join (like I found on this website and this one too), find upcoming meetings or calls to action and offer my help. (I’ve attended many events over the years, but have rarely offered more than my participation.) Maybe I need to learn more about issues like gentrification or white privilege that currently plague the poor and marginalized. Maybe I’ll write the president or call my legislators. I’ll look at my calendar and give myself a deadline for a new action.
Whatever I do, I’ll pray about it. I’ll invite the Spirit to guide me, work through me and show me where I am being called. Because however I am called to change it will be a struggle. I need God’s help. We all do.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the light of the epiphany star and the glowing headlines this week, the Spirit is convincing me that it’s time for us to get back to basics, to recenter on the core values of the Christian faith.
It seems that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, the truth is muddled with propaganda, commentary, and commotion. We hear leaders defend violence and division. We hear justifications for assassinations and tearing families apart. Deep in our bodies,e feel the chaos, the polarities and the pain of this time. We try to catch our breath in the middle of our busy days. To remain calm and loving.
Meanwhile, the trenches of sorrow and pollution are carved deeper into human community and every part of the planet. People are hurting, dying. Species are going extinct. Disasters and violence are damaging entire ecosystems, destroying civilizations. It’s no wonder that many of us feel confused, stressed and worked up. In this atmosphere, despondency comes naturally.
Yet, we’re Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ: the Love of God in Human form. We follow a teacher and friend who modeled for us how to live out the Gospel, to be people of Good News no matter how tough things get.
The Gospel principles are pretty straight-forward, too: Compassion. Mercy. Nonviolence. Unity. Trust in God. Faith. Community. Being nonjudgmental. Kindness. Forgiveness. Peacemaking. Prayer. Relationships. Love.
Although remaining grounded in the basics gets messy, it’s essential that we do. It keeps us centered on Jesus and helps us to be part of the Church we dream of, that we are called to create.
When I am striving to get back to the basics, I find it helpful to return to the Word of God, to pray with the Scriptures that say it straight. Perhaps it will help you, too.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. — Colossians 3:12-13
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. — 1 Peter 3:9
Trust in God
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. — Proverbs 3:5-6
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. — James 2:14-26
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching. — Romans 12:3-13
Judge not, that you be not judged. — Matthew 7:1
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. — Ephesians 4:32
But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. — Matthew 6:15
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. — Matthew 5:43-44
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. — Philippians 4:6
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Peter 4:8
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. — 1 Thessalonians 5:11
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. — Ephesians 4:2-3
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. — Luke 6:34
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:29-31
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:8
* * *
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remain rooted in the basics, no matter how tough the times may be.
Let us refuse to give into the temptations and avoid the traps and tensions of our time. We are called to be children of light, to shine God’s love counter-culturally. Let us be people of community and compassion, remembering we’re in this together, we need each other.
Together, as one, by the grace of God, we can be rooted in the basics and on the right track, praying along the way.
God of Love and Mercy, When the chaos and the division of the world tempts us to turn away from you and your teachings, we turn to you for guidance and grace. With your help, may we remain centered on you and your love. May we not become muddled or mixed up by pain and heartache or lose hope and faith. We want to walk as children of your light, as people who share your mercy and kindness in every circumstance. Have mercy on us, oh God, and help us to love like you. We pray this through Christ our Lord, our Way, Truth and Life. Amen.
It’s a gray day, one of those types where the clouds hang heavy and seem to block out all sunlight. Inside a cozy lamp-lit room, I am sitting in a circle of ministers training to be spiritual directors and practicing the art of listening. Around the circle, person after person tells a story from their life that is personal.
With each telling, I notice layers of transformation and transition; I hear about the wonder of discovery and the lightness of hope. A phrase comes to mind: the goodness of gray. I jot the words into my notebook and open my heart wide. Although this happened weeks before Advent, “the goodness of gray” remained a constant suggestion, a companion in the season of searching, longing and waiting.
We are people who long for simplicity, who often ache for clearly defined borders and lines. Even though we may know that complexity and conversion is healthy and natural, we are comfortable with what’s predictable, what we know, what feels safe.
There may have been times when answers were easy, when we knew what to expect. For some it was the patterns of childhood, the days of easy answers and comfort zones. For others, we found solace in the rituals of our religion or what was considered proper and polite. Our memories might be hazy, but nostalgia convinces that there was a time when much stood strong on solid ground. Elected leaders compromised. Polarities were unusual. Religious life was defined. Democracy was functional. Unity and peace were valued and Churches were places of refuge and calm.
Now, we don’t know about much. Nearly everything we are familiar with — from the structures of Church and society, to technology and the ecosystems sustaining us — seems to be in transition, in flux. What we forget, though, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they smell fresher, lighter?
Do you tell yourself stories of meaning and mystery? Do you let the metaphors dance in the shadows of your bedroom while you remember your past and invent your fate?
Do you pray in the silence? Do you pray with song? Do you pray on the busy streets?
Do you slice up your words and put them into a pot to simmer like stew until they become a nourishment thicker than alphabet soup?
Do you go through doors to places that are wordless, spaces where the only sound heard is the buzz of light warming you? Do you let words illumine you?
Do you pick up your pen and draw circles in your journal? Do you then color those circles in with lines and dreams, a blend of babbles and breath? Do you ask Spirit to help you to make sense of what comes from your imagination, from the cavern of your soul? Do you ask the Spirit to help you make sense of anything?
How do you pray?
Do you pray with poetry or psalms? Do you pray in your sleep? Do you pray under water?
Do you let the word take the shape of your fleshy, wrinkled, brain?
Do words tick in the territory of your heart? Are they fleshy like moving muscle, tightening and expanding and allowing for the flow of living blood?
Do you allow your womb to expand, for the Spirit to write beauty and truth through you?
In the Northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, the day when we experience the least sunlight.
We’re still in the season of Advent, the season of longing and hope. Even if the preparations and Christmas celebrations of this season have had you feeling busy and stressed, you still have time to tune into God’s graces, to notice how God is working in your struggles and joys.
To help you lean toward the light, to trust in its coming, I now offer you the top five Advent reflections from Messy Jesus Business since this blog began over nine years ago.
Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration. (Read more)
When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.
Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. (Read more.)
Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.
Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.
My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. (Read More)
“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.
“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.
“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”
As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”
I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? (Read More)
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today. (Read more)
May the Light of Christ transform you all, and give you great peace! Happy Solstice!
Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.