In the Christian journey’s four seasons, “All Shall be Well”

For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.

In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.

My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.

I hadn’t thought about all this in a while, but it came back to mind as I read All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World by Catherine McNiel.

I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of,  Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)

The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.

Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.

Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.

Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ and then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.

Sacrifice, not self-care

Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first. When a plane is experiencing difficulties and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on the masks of others. You need to always make sure to take care of yourself first. — self-help speakers everywhere

I’ve been keeping track, and in roughly the last three years, at conferences, on retreats, and in a homily or two, I have heard the above “oxygen mask” analogy a self-care mantra 13 times. And every time I do, it grates on me.  

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. — Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:34-35)

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Cross in the St Viktor Church, Dülmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 2018 (image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

If there is one major thesis about self-care in the Gospel, it is this. No one can do it alone. We believe that Jesus Christ became man and died for us because we could not save ourselves. Before that he walked among the poor, healing the sick and lifting up the lowly because they were too broken to heal themselves and too beaten down to lift themselves up. 

But if you listen to contemporary culture, even among ministers, the message is always this: don’t forget about number one. Don’t get stressed out. Don’t sacrifice your well-being. If someone else is struggling, well, you can try to help to a point but ultimately, they need to make time for themselves.

This message does not work for any of the real problems facing us. That advice does not help the truly oppressed.

How about the women in Vietnam toiling away in sweatshops, literally beaten when they try to organize for better wages and conditions? Do they need to focus on self-care?

What about the elderly gentleman at our parish whose wife now has dementia? He can’t care for her, can’t navigate the medical bureaucracy, and is becoming increasingly enfeebled himself. 

What about the tragic, uncontrollable epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings that are causing our children, as they practice active shooter drills in school, to wonder if today is their last? 

These situations do not call for self-care. They require the help of others, of those outside the situation, to enter into the fray. The women in Vietnam need for us to stop buying products from the companies that enslave them and for us to care more about them and their plight than we do about looking good. The gentleman at our parish needs his friends to bring him meals and take him to doctors’ appointments and to tend to his needs. In the wake of the recent shootings in New Zealand, a young Muslim from the area, Nakita Valerio, posted a quick message that soon went viral: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.” I couldn’t agree with her more. 

We need each other. We cannot solve our biggest problems alone. When we are strong, we need to truly exert ourselves in the causes of justice and wear ourselves out, even hurt ourselves in the struggle. And when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone, we should pray to God that we have communities that will lift us up in turn. 

In the lowest moments of my life,  I did not need a day at the spa I needed my friends to help me, to save me. I was lucky, privileged and blessed that they did. We need to create such communities for all.

This last year in youth ministry was hard. One of our students suddenly passed away from Leukemia. He was a wonderful and charismatic boy, and he left many grieving friends, myself included. Another student tried to kill himself. Between struggles with drugs, sex, parents divorcing, bullying and all sorts of other upheavals, it was an unusually grief-filled year. I was unusually grief-filled as a result. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, entire nights when I prayed for my kids. And God and I talked about a lot of things. But you want to know one thing He never said to me? If I can, for a moment, presume to know the will of the Almighty and hear His voice, I will go out on a limb and say not once did I ever see in scripture or hear from the Lord, “Keep your distance. Don’t love them too much. This is their problem, not yours. Take care of yourself.”

As the year went on, I found my daily prayers changing. On Sundays, the day most filled with youth activities at our parish, I used to pray for strength to make it through unscathed. I soon realized that was not possible; that, actually, being invulnerable requires being very disinterested and ultimately not very Christ-like. 

For to be vulnerable means to be woundable (from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound), and what is the story of the incarnation and passion if not that God himself was willing to be wounded, indeed to die, for the good of those he loved? So now I pray, “God, feel free to allow me to be wounded in your service today. Feel free to wear me out and use me up. Just promise you’ll heal me when it’s over.”

It’s not that I like being hurt. It’s not even that I don’t think self-care is important (even Jesus took his time in solitude to pray and prepare). It’s just that maybe we are focusing on it too much. Maybe we’ve taken it too far, believe in it too much, idolize it.  Believing in the cross means we can’t expect to be well all the time, and believing in the resurrection means we can’t expect to be entirely well at all in this life. We should expect to be wounded, for a while at least, just as much as we should long to be made whole.

So, might I propose a better analogy? Perhaps we should think of these ubiquitous oxygen masks, not like the ones in airplanes but the ones attached to the oxygen tanks that firefighters strap on before they race into a blaze. 

Okay, fair enough; put your oxygen mask on first. 

But the “oxygen” is not your own self-interested little ritual of wellness it’s a real, lived connection to Christ and to a community that has your back. That is what you need to survive. But then, once that mask is on, go into the blaze. Go into the flames and the heat and the danger of the world’s real injustices to bring that connection to others. 

Because your brothers and sisters can’t breathe. They are burning up. They need the help of allies, activists, friends, servants, saints — whole communities of them because if they could have done it on their own they already would have. 

Or, to put it another way take up your cross.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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 that 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

‘A bad guy was killing people’: A parent’s response to the nightmare of gun violence

It’s 3 a.m. and the moon is glowing softly through the wide bedroom window. Why am I awake? I look to the side and see that our six-month-old is sleeping soundly.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

A repetition of the sound that woke me, “Mama!!”, comes from the room across the hall. It’s our three-year-old who, despite a strong, independent spirit, believes that a parent is needed if she is thirsty or needs the toilet that’s a few steps away or if her blanket has slipped off. 

I pause and take a deep breath, take a drink of water and then another deep breath. “Don’t go in annoyed,” I tell myself. “You don’t know what she needs until you’ve listened.”

When I go to her it takes a few minutes before I can get her to say anything besides “Mama,” but I can see that she is in fact distressed. “Was it a bad dream?” I whisper. She nods. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“There were bad guys killing people,” she says in a small, still-scared voice. And suddenly, I feel a dark weight in my own stomach and my throat tightens around the words of reassurance I want to speak. 

My mind conjures not her nightmare, but the real-life horror I’ve been hearing about on the radio the last few days. I imagine a Walmart where people – bored or excited, tired, in a hurry or casually moseying – are suddenly confronted with a rapid-fire lethal weapon that has no concept of the rich complexity of their personal stories. 

A bad guy is killing people.

And so, I can’t quite bring myself to say, “Don’t worry baby, everything’s okay, you’re totally safe.”  Instead I say, “I’m here with you, sweetheart, it was a dream, you’re surrounded by people who love you.” Because things are not okay, and I don’t really know what or where “safe” is. This has always been true, but the reality of it rests heavily on me right now. 

After a quick ritual of tucking-in and “huggy blanket, huggy blanket, down to your toes!”, my daughter drifts back to sleep and hopefully to sweet dreams of riding horses and unicorns that she reports having most mornings.

I try to return to sleep myself, but the infant who’s sharing a bed with me tonight is restless. Finally, I hold her close until her body relaxes and her breath evens into the rhythm of sleep. 

My body will not relax as my mind grinds, trying to solve an impossible problem: how do I prepare my children for an unpredictable and precarious reality while still providing them the sense of security and stability they need to thrive? How do I say, “It’s okay,” when I feel so sad and afraid?

Earlier in the day, when we had to make a quick stop to purchase the rest of their school supplies, my husband stopped the car next to the store so I could run in. I wondered if he was thinking about the same thing I was; the mother who’d recently run into Walmart in El Paso, Texas, to pick up something while she and her family were on their way to the airport. 

Her husband and children had waited, unknowing, in the car while she was murdered. How did they find out? Were they waiting for a long time, wondering what was keeping her? Did they get bored or annoyed? It’s such a small thing to run into a store, and yet …

I feel the tension in my body as I step out of the car. I close the door and then open it again; popping my head in to cheerfully say, “I’ll be right back, my lovies!” — both to reassure myself and to ensure that my possible last words to my beloved family aren’t, “Stop fussing! I’ll just be a minute!”  

Of course, the chances of me and my family being in any real danger are very slim. I know this. But I don’t like that argument. I am not exceptional — God is not any more determined to extend supernatural protection over me and my family than over those people who died senselessly. 

Even if I and my loved ones don’t encounter harm everything is still not okay, because others have and will and are encountering danger and hurt in so many ways. So, I am lying in bed, so tired, wanting desperately to fall asleep, and yet, how can I sleep to the sound of all this suffering? 

Jesus tells us many times throughout the Gospels not to worry and not to be afraid. All the while, he demonstrates through his life solidarity with the outcast and the sick; he reaches his hands out, even to the dead. I wish he would tell me what to do now.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

 

Soon the alarm will sound and it will be time to ready the kids for school; to make sure they eat a nutritious meal, brush their teeth and are fully dressed before they’re bundled out the door. Why am I awake? To fall asleep feels like a betrayal to those kept awake with the ache of grief or fear or the loneliness of irreconcilable loss. 

The sun will rise without regard for my mental state, rousing with its light three lively children and the mundane but necessary demands of the day. So, I hug the tension to me like a restless child, breathe deeply, pray for grace and accept the gift of rest.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

 

The familiar, the new and discernment for daily living

I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?

This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.

Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?

I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.

Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.

Photo by Rahul Jain on Unsplash

In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.

The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.

With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.

Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)

When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?

In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.

There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.

Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)

I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”

Inside Mystery Cave

A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.

Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.

It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.

I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.

I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that…   [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Old Mystery Cave sign. Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/55239532902204369/?lp=true

The holy work of tending to life

“Everything is work. We either accept it or we fight against life.” This was the declaration of the Mother Superior and leader of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine Abbey of 36 nuns in Connecticut offering their lives in prayer and cooperative work with God and all creation. This community raises beef and dairy cattle, makes cheese, raises sheep and chickens, cultivates a garden and compost operation, and even dabbles in pottery, weaving, artistry, leather making, and blacksmithing. The life of this community is one sustained by God’s grace in prayer and work. And it is a lot of work. All work at Regina Laudis is ordered towards the common good, to the glory of God.

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“Psalm 27” by Janice Little (image courtesy Greg Little).

After visiting Regina Laudis in June, I returned to my own community with a renewed sense of the connection between work and life.

God breathes everything into existence. All life is sourced in and aimed towards God. In our life together – whether that’s a group of friends, a family, a church body, an intentional or religious community – we are invited to participate in God’s life and to nurture and sustain life. This takes work. Sometimes this work is boring. Sometimes this work is fun. Sometimes it carries a sense of importance, and other times it is underwhelmingly mundane. Sometimes this work is difficult.

Part of this work involves our own inward discoveries and confrontations with pain and fear. The work of interior exploration, noticing, confession, and truth-telling opens up a new terrain for possibilities of love and compassion in a community’s life. The more our common life matures, the greater our capacity to accompany one another in this inner work. Our life is filled with mess ups and forgiveness, discovering our compulsions and strengthening friendships in the journey of receiving God’s grace towards freedom.

Another significant part of this work involves our daily, practical, tiny offerings of doing the dishes, naming hidden gifts, cooking with care, listening to one another, teaching children, bearing one another’s faults with compassion and a smile, changing air conditioning filters and light bulbs, committing to being present, confessing and forgiving wrongs, and placing flowers in a vase on the table.

I wonder what might happen if we explore the mysterious connection between work and life?  What if we work inside of community life as the holy nurturing that makes room for the gift of life to bloom and grow?

Sundays at 4 p.m., all of us who live at Corner House gather to talk about our week’s upcoming schedule and to-do chores. Janice organizes the refrigerator and refreshes our memory of leftovers. Miss T thoroughly washes the dishes and cleans up our coffee corner. Tony changes the sheets in our Christ Room and sweeps all the floors. Lee selects just the right album to play on the record player to lighten and enliven the mood and then cleans the washer or tidies the porch. We work together. We work for one another and for the unknown guests that will present Jesus’ presence to us in the upcoming week.

This pattern of coming together on Sunday afternoons is a place of vitality for our home. We remind one another, through this shared work, of the life that is given to us by God in our common life. We tend to that life, nurture it, and make room for it to grow. We open channels for that life to flow freely and fully.

And Sundays aren’t the only time for this. Bonnie starts our house grocery list the moment the previous week’s grocery run ends. All week long, Bonnie adds to the list when she sees something running low. Tony’s garden-tending is slow, deliberate and filled with wonder. In the last couple weeks, he emerges from the garden everyday with nine cucumbers or seven okra or 15 sun-gold tomatoes. Janice uses her eye for beauty to rearrange art on the walls and systematize our shelves and closets. All of this work is concrete, small, untethered to money, and terribly ordinary. All of this work attends to the gift of life given us by God. All of this work swims in the loving, active presence of God.

We are learning to work to sustain the life given to us by a loving God. We are learning to resist the temptation to say “no” to this work for other tasks we deem more “relational” or ”spiritual,” for God is present in all the mundane acts of care that make room for life to flourish more and more. In prayer, we are reminded of the source and goal of all life as we worship the One who breathes life into everything that exists. May we receive God’s grace to commit to the holy work of tending to life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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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 recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

A litany for our inability to end gun violence

**Adapted from “A litany for the teens in Parkland, FL

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This image was captured by Sister Julia Walsh in the chapel at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

For our failure to protect life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to elect leaders who protect all life, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to accept hate, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to avoid confrontation, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to allow white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to shrug our shoulders in the face of evil, God, have mercy.
For our greed, God, have mercy.
For our pride, God, have mercy.
For our violence, God, have mercy.
For our excuses, God, have mercy.
For our selfishness, God, have mercy.
For our stubbornness, God, have mercy.
For our love of guns, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of public places, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of celebration, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of diversity, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of the joy of being young, God, have mercy.
For our desecration of ordinary days, God, have mercy.
For permitting a society full of inequality, God, have mercy.
For allowing money to have more power than people, God, have mercy.
For putting any life above another life, God, have mercy.
For calling people monsters, God, have mercy.
For being numb to bad news, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the loss of life, God, have mercy.
For being numb to the evil of violence, God, have mercy.
For our failure to build a compassionate society, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love our enemies, God, have mercy.
For our failure to believe in you, God, have mercy.
For our failure to destroy our idols, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end hate, God, have mercy.
For our failure to stop racism, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end white supremacy, God, have mercy.
For our failure to follow your nonviolent way, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust You, God, have mercy.
For our failure to trust each other, God, have mercy.
For our failure to love one another, God, have mercy.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.

For the faithful who honor all life, We thank you God.
For the speakers who challenge the status quo, We thank you God.
For the powerful who build unity and peace, We thank you God.
For parents who shield their children from bullets, We thank you God.
For strangers who sacrifice their lives for others, We thank you God.
For leaders who turn anger into hope, We thank you God.
For teachers who help us think carefully, We thank you God.
For prophets who speak Truth to power, We thank you God.
For policy makers who lead us on the path of peace, We thank you God.
For gun owners who beat their weapons into tools for life, We thank you God.
For peace activists who offer us an alternative vision, We thank you God.
For organizers who offer vigils and places of sanctuary, We thank you God.
For clergy who keep us focused on the Prince of Peace, We thank you God.
For ordinary citizens who offer their gifts to the greater good, We thank you God.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours, Help us, Good God.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

 

Parent in training: a review of “Bless This Mess”

Amy Nee-Walker with her youngest child. Contributed photo.

My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).

Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.

“Bless This Mess” cover photo by Amy Nee-Walker ( #PRHpartner @CrownPublishing)

My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.

All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.

Amy Nee-Walker’s eldest child. Contributed photo.

There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.

Amy Nee-Walker’s second child. Contributed photo.

Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear my baby crying!

Hands of Children. Photo by Amy Nee-Walker

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Bring on the boredom: the paradox of the path

Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.

We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.

“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.

My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.

An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.

Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.

And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.

In his essay,  James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”

I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.

“Sunrise at Marywood” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.

In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”

On parenting, poverty, and privilege

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Nicole’s youngest daughter, Adelina, washes clothes at a pila. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.

We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.

As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.

I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.

Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.

Because we could leave.

If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.

I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).

Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.

I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).

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Kiara (left) and Adelina, Nicole’s daughters, experience the beauty of a Honduran beach. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.

I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”

And yet …. the official policy of the U.S. is to treat mothers at the border (many of whom are Honduran and all of whom are trying to protect their children) as though they are criminals. We rip their children from their arms and lock them up in dehumanizing, traumatic conditions. We violate international human rights laws and — more fundamentally — God’s laws.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)

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Children and adults in the Finca community walk the Stations of the Cross, honoring the sacrifice of Jesus, during Lent. (Image by Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.

That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.

So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.

And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
(Matthew 5:3-6)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.