A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.
(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)
I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away, and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.
(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)
Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.
You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.
I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark.
On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.
“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.”– St. Pope John Paul II
Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.
This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.
St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.
And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.
I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.
The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.
It’s a stripping.
And, a great modeling of love.
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Beheaded bodies lying in the streets. Stray dogs and pigs picking at human corpses on the roadside. Vibrant communities silenced and still, everyone indoors, too afraid to go to school or to the market. Roadblocks stopping travel, isolating entire villages. A pregnant woman delivers a baby who doesn’t survive because they can’t get to the hospital. Food rots because no one can travel and farmers can’t transport their harvests, and survivors of violence become increasingly malnourished, moving toward starvation.
These scenes may sound like snippets from a nightmare, but for Anglophones in Cameroon, these are the current facts of life. I gleaned those descriptions listed from an email forwarded to my inbox a couple weeks ago, written by a Cameroonian to a friend of my community, a philanthropist in Wisconsin. The writer was lucky to be able to send the message to his friend in Wisconsin; the Cameroonian government has blocked the internet in the Anglophone region frequently in recent months. The writer is lucky to be alive.
Cameroon, a nation in West Africa, is about 80 percent French speaking and 20 percent English speaking. Late in 2016, students and professionals such as educators and lawyers in the Anglophone region began to protest the Francophone majority, declaring that they were being treated like second-class citizens. In response to their protests, the Cameroonian government… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
I once stood near the United States-Mexico border. In the journey to this edge, I witnessed the evidence of militarization: guns, checkpoints, armored vehicles, cameras. The steel fence rose from the sandy earth like a misplaced mountain. I felt my body tense from the feeling of surveillance. I felt the unease and sorrow that seemed to hover in the dry desert air.
Since that time much has happened in my life, including earning a MA in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. At my graduation last May, I loved hearing this speech from one of the recipients of an honorary degree: Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas from El Paso, Texas, a pastor, educator, theologian, advocate for migrants and refugees and founder of the Tepeyac Institute.
In his speech, Msgr. Bañuelas centered his comments around the meaning of the Spanish phrase he learned from his grandmother: “tú eras mi otra yo” or “you are my other me.” According to Bañuelas, when we see our humanity wrapped up in the being of others, we see how “walls between us threaten our sacred bounds” because “oneness with each other is oneness with God.”
As I understand it, a community of any type cannot know oneness if those who are poor and marginalized are not included, honored, respected. We come to know God and ourselves through the poor. In Bañuelas,’ words, “there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the poor. Through their eyes we see what Jesus sees, a life rich in beauty, value, and meaning.”
Since my graduation in May, Bañuelas,’ words have remained a steady challenge to me. I often ponder if my life is being converted more to the poor; if they are my center and path to knowing God more deeply. I think about during my visits to the county jail. I think about it during my drives around rural America. As a retreat minister, I often wonder how I’m going to help others know the sacredness of the other. I also consider the Christian call when I observe the divides in society, the collapse of connections over political aisles and the evidence that even the ecosystems are feeling the torment of conflict. How can we build more inclusive societies? How can we tend to the most vulnerable among us?
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of a group of teens preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church. I read this aloud:
“In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” – Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exultante, paragraph #6)
In other words, not only is our humanity bound up in one other but our salvation is too. If we are divided and not caring for one another across borders and divides, none of us will be able to experience the fullness of God’s reign. We are a Church, a people, a community only as strong as the most marginal and weak among us. This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. This is the stuff of South African spirituality called Ubuntu, which means “I am who I am because of who we all are” and “I am a person because I belong.” It’s “tú eras mi otra yo” put another way.
Visiting each side of the border two years ago with my peers, I encountered the sacredness of a community and the goodness of God’s creation. The heat of the sun and the desert life growing in abundance testified to the truth that God did not create borders. God created the beauty of humanity, the glories of nature. And humanity and nature is all communal, like God, the Trinity.
God’s has designed us for unity, communion, community; we cannot be made whole if knowing one another demands crossing through splits and divides, if we must conquer walls and fences in order to bond as neighbors.
Building unity demands tearing down the walls and advocating for justice. As Bañuelas says, “tú eras mi otra yo” means “Our hearts and our lives shrivel when remain silent about the silence of others.” And, “tú eras mi otra yo” … “is the lived courageous hope not afraid to take a stand for justice, knowing that each stand removes a brick from injustice until it all comes tumbling down … because love always wins.”
Now is the time to cross the canyons split into our civility. Breaking down the walls will strengthen our society. We need each other because we are human, because we are the people of God.
With the walls down, let us look into the face of the poor and come to see God — doing so means better knowing ourselves, because “tú eras mi otra yo.” And it means, wonderfully, that we will not be the same.
“There is an innate part of God in each of us that needs to be honored and respected always. When we listen with our hearts and share in solidarity with the sufferings, the struggles the hopes and dreams of the poor, our lives are shaped anew. Our theology and ministry formation finds its deepest meaning. Our passion for living explodes into shouts of joy and a new person, a new humanity is born. The poor show us that when we are together as one we are invincible in justice, peace, hope and reconciliation.” – Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas (Catholic Theological Union graduation, 2018.)
Changed hearts and lives, strengthened communities and Church, with the walls broken down there will be no more borders to visit or neighbors to fear. We are closer to God and encounter all people seeing clearly that “tú eras mi otra yo.”
The third mobilization at the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora Mexico is Nov. 16-18, 2018!
“Our move to the border responds to the present-day call to solidarity in Latin America. The mobilization at the border in Nogales is one more way to fight for the closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The third bi-national Encuentro at the militarized U.S./Mexico border aims to build the grassroots power necessary to challenge the racist statutes quo and push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.”
Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, October 14th. You can view the live Canonization Mass on EWTN starting at 3:30 a.m. ET or again at noon. In honor of the upcoming celebration, I offer you a review of the film about the last three years of his life that I wrote as part of my coursework at Catholic Theological Union.
Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!
When I taught high school, a poster hung in my classroom that read, “Stand up for what’s right even if you’re standing alone.” To my theology students, the poster presented a message about the cost of discipleship; Jesus and his early followers were persecuted for standing up for justice, and through the centuries Christians have been persecuted for living the Gospel.
For three years (1977-1980), Oscar Romero served as archbishop in El Salvador. By his courageous leadership, all people in El Salvador — no matter if they were rich or poor, powerful or oppressed — were challenged to unite together as one body of Christ, as a stronger Church, more focused on the mission of Christ. He confronted systemic injustice, challenged the status quo, and stood along with the poor and oppressed. In the end, his courage caused martyrdom for Archbishop Romero.The true story is a reminder for us all that the cost of being Church can be persecution.
A FILM OF TRUTH AND PAIN
The courage and Christ-like love of the archbishop during his poignant and brief period of leadership is captured in a 1989 film that bears his name, Romero. In addition to telling the tale of Romero’s leadership, Romero says much about ecclesiology through images of the Church as a Persecuted Body of Christ. A major theme of the film Romero is a contextual presentation of a definition of Church; as we see people unite together as the Body of Christ and build the Kingdom of God, the people come to embody the persecuted Christ.
Viewing Romero stirred up deep emotions in me. It felt like an act of prayer to journey with the Salvadorian people, and I became deeply saddened by the truth of their suffering. I remembered my experience protesting at the School of Americas in Georgia; I felt shame to know that my country was on the side of the oppressors in this conflict. Additionally, I became curious about the authenticity of the Romero quotes and the historical accuracy of the film.
I viewed the film in light of my reading and learning in an ecclesiology course at Catholic Theological Union. I was stunned to realize how highly theological the film Romero is and what it says about the global Church in the Post-Vatican II era. I noticed that the film featured several local “non-actors” which served to emphasize the ways in which the poor are the people of God who make up the Church. With this in mind, the faces of the ordinary people became strikingly beautiful as I watched. I realized the meaning was presented through the film’s strategic design of layering the pictures of the people with the sound of Romero’s speeches. The juxtaposition of my deeper theological understanding with the Truth of the story caused me to feel horror each time the film showed an image of Christ or the dignity of a person violated.
THE PERSECUTED BODY
In each period of Church history, there has emerged a new understanding of what it means to be Church. In the 20th century, after the Second Vatican Council, the meaning of Church became multidimensional. Church is a pilgrim people, the people of God on a journey. We are the Body of Christ. In Romero, we see this ecclesiology manifested within the context of the conflict in El Salvador. More significantly, we see how the archbishop responded to the tensions by presenting a way of being a Church that builds the Reign of God through action. As noted by Dulles, “to be fully effective, images must be deeply rooted in the corporate experience of the faithful.” This is, in part, why Romero’s focus on the people being the persecuted Church was effective within the context of El Salvador.
In one particular chapter of the film, we see a simple village church that has been converted into a barracks. The archbishop courageously enters the church and announces to the uniformed soldiers that he has come to retrieve the Eucharist. A machine gun-bearing soldier hears him and turns to point his weapon toward the high altar at the front of the church. First, we see Jesus’ body hanging on the crucifix above the altar as it is sprayed with bullets. Then, we see the doors of the tabernacle blast off as the surrounding altar, wall, and flower vases fill with bullet holes. The soldier turns to the archbishop and tells him to leave the church, and then smiles with satisfaction when Romero does. Romero goes into the street and looks into the faces of the people who stare back at him with concern. Romero then re-enters the church, returns to the high altar and tries to pick up as many pieces of the Eucharist as he can from the floor while more gunfire sprays toward him. As he crouches and gathers his beloved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a soldier approaches and kicks him to the ground. For the third time, the archbishop leaves and returns, now wearing his priestly garments and walking through the streets of the village toward the church with people following him. Romero leads the crowd into the church. Together, they gaze straight ahead and move unflinchingly past the soldiers who are pointing guns at them. Despite the confused and shocked looks upon the soldiers’ faces, Romero and the people fill the church. Archbishop Romero stands near the altar, looks into the faces of the people and speaks. He declares that he and the people have come to
… retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the Church. You are the people of God. You are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as he was crucified 2,000 years ago … And, you should know that your pain and your suffering, like his, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.
Through the combination of the words of Romero and cinematic technique, the film presents an image of the Church. We see that the Church stands with the oppressed; the Church itself is persecuted, for it is the Body of Christ. The scene mirrors the ecclesiology defended by Romero in his pastoral letter The Church, The Body of Christ in History in which he writes, “no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission … It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself; what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians — especially in anything that involves the poorest of society.” Romero’s particular attention to “the poorest of society” by his words and action is especially significant in the context; the Church was accused of being Marxist and “meddling in politics” because it stood beside the poor. Within the same pastoral letter, Romero defends the Church’s actions against these accusations by especially emphasizing that the Church “has done no more than fulfill her mission.” Part of that mission, he insists, is to promote the inclusivity and unity that is core to the Reign of God, for the Gospel does not exclude any person, rich or poor. As he wrote, “… the Archdiocese has been faithful to the Gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.”
AS ONE BODY OF CHRIST
Throughout the film, as they respond to the sociopolitical tensions in their country, we also see how the poorest Salvadorian people arise united by their ambition to build the Reign of God. The film begins with a scene of the military of El Salvador providing surveillance at a political rally in February 1977. As the people in the crowd cheer to a speech that calls for a free election, it becomes clear that the people are united in their desire for freedom and confrontation of the power system. As the film progresses, the people persevere with unwavering determination, even while more and more people are assassinated, arrested, tortured and raped; disappear. Their cause is the Gospel that promotes the dignity and freedom of all people, but their courage is a threat to the power of the right-wing government and death squads.
Immediately after the martyrdom of Romero, the last scene of the film shows a group of ordinary poor people, old and young, moving along a crowded road. Mothers walk with their children holding their hands. One young woman carries a bucket while another carries a basket on her head. An older man guides a mule. As we look into the people’s faces and see their poverty, we hear Romero’s voice one more time: “I’ve often been threatened by death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadorian people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” With this conclusion of the film, we are once again given an image of the Church as the persecuted people of God.
LESSONS FOR OTHER CONTEXTS
Although the image of the Church that is present in Romero is particular to the sociopolitical context during and after Romero’s time, the image of the people of God being a persecuted Church is not unique to that historical situation. Images of Church “suggest attitudes and courses of action; they intensify confidence and devotion,” but they really are not effective if they don’t fit the experience of the members of the Church. Nonetheless, I can apply certain lessons from Romero to my particular context because I relate to the experience of persecution as a member of the Church.
As a Franciscan Sister, I regularly find myself in a state of discernment about how to live the Gospel no matter the cost of discipleship. Even though my experiences are not as drastic as the violence dealt with by the Salvadorians, I also must confront my fears about the price of discipleship. Romero fed me the courage needed to be a Christian in contentious times; I now expect persecution since I am part of the Church. As a member of the Body of Christ, I will do what the poster in my classroom said and “stand up for what’s right” when the Spirit calls me to. Because of my faith, the difference is that I will be united with my Christian brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. I will not be, as the poster says, “standing alone.”
James R. Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero” Spirituality Today40, no. 40 (1988). Online.
Oscar Romero, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” in Voice of the Voiceless and Other Pastoral Statements, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 69 and 79.
Antonio D. Sison, “Reign-Focus: Theology, Film, and the Aesthetics of Liberation” New Theology Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 45.
Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1964), in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post Counciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northpoint, NY: Costello, 1998), nos. 13 and 50.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.
“Unity,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.
Romero, “The Church,” 79.
Romero, “The Church,” 78.
Romero, “The Church,” 79.
Romero, “The Church,” 72.
Romero, “The Church,” 76.
Romero, “The Church,” 76.
“End Credits,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.
It’s indisputable that today’s signs of the times point to heartache, injustice, division and confusion. The truth seems to be debatable. The persecutions of the little ones — from immigrant children, refugees, victims of natural disasters and targets of sexual assault; those who are on the margins — often are the ones who bear the brunt of the pain.
Today, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 2018, I am not going to write volumes comparing and contrasting the 1200s with the present time. But I would like to suggest that the legacy of St. Francis — and particular Franciscan values — offer a formula for Christian resistance.
Francis reacted to much of the injustices occurring around him by behaving countercultural, by responding in ways that were opposite to the status quo. I believe that we could do the same by fostering the values of joy and humility within ourselves. To do so is radical resistance, a response to the wrongs in our time.
The headlines can be discouraging, can cause us to feel weighed down with despair. Adults mock those who are hurting in ways worse than children on playgrounds. The poor and elderly are dying in floods, earthquakes, fires. More women are speaking the truth of how they have been abused, violated. With such facts spinning around us, it may be only natural to be down.
Yet, the Franciscan way to resist the gloom and despair is to expand the goodness, to rejoice in the sweetness of God becoming part of the mess through the Incarnation. This is not a blissful, Pollyanna happiness but a refusal to let the negativity discourage us or overcome us. It is a deep joy because God’s goodness is greater than any sorrow. This was the spirit of my community’s assembly this past June: we started A Revolution of Goodness, so that goodness could overtake the awfulness corrupting hope and joy around the world.
For us Franciscans, the perfect joy persists no matter how awful the circumstances. God’s goodness provides a zest deep within.
Here are some words from St. Francis of Assisi, regarding the meaning of true joy:
Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, “What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
Humility and Poverty
Like Francis, we live in a society that puts the rich, famous, and accomplished on pedestals. We love to celebrate the wealth and might of the rich. The image of success that we are fed is often a scene of materialism: a nice house, car and tons of stuff. Such greed for power and wealth is dangerous to our relationships, our civility and our planet, though. What is the way to resist?
St. Francis’ response to the pressure to become wealthy was a radical renouncement of money and power. Francis literally stripped down the wealth from his cloth merchant father, becoming naked in the public square. He took on the clothes of a poor man. He taught his followers to go the margins to live with and serve the lepers. He embraced poverty and humility, wholeheartedly, insisting that brothers forming community with him to call themselves the Order of Friars Minor. This Franciscan value of is often called minoritas by those of us that are Franciscans.
In today’s world, we can resist the greed for wealth and power and instead embrace the Franciscan values of poverty and humility by becoming downwardly mobile. Instead of working to associate with the elite, we turn our attention to the little ones, the poor and marginalized. We serve and spend time with the weak ones who are often ignored, aligning our selves with them on the streets; in shelters, soup kitchens, prisons and detention centers. We become smaller and lesser in the process as we pursue the chance to serve others instead of being served.
Here are some strong words from St. Francis of Assisi challenging us to grow in humility:
Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.
And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you, together with them, have crucified Him and are still crucifying Him by delighting in vices and sins.
In what, then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge, knew how to interpret every kind of language, and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. For, even though someone may have received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom, one demon knew about heavenly matters and now knows more about those of Earth than all human beings.
In the same way, even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things.
But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition V)
Franciscan joy and humility are not the only ways to resist the injustices corrupting our current society; peacemaking, contemplation, and continual conversion are also good Franciscan values to influence us. It actually seems that joy and humility will naturally grow in us while we pursue peace, contemplate God’s goodness, and develop into who he is calling us to become.
Franciscanism is Gospel living, after all. And Gospel living itself is a constant turning to Christ. We follow Jesus as we promote the peace and justice that comes from him. We love our enemies. We decrease so God can increase. We spread the Truth of love.
These are radical ways to behave. We are Christian resisters in the style of St. Francis of Assisi, boldly living with joy and humility. May it be! Amen.
A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.
Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.
All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.
We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?
From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.
All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.” It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.
For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.
This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.
So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “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. God’s ways are better than my ways.
Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.
Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.
And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.
Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:
by Mark Nepo
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.
The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.
The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”
From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.
I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.
My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”
In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.
I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”
The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.
I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.