Being a beautiful mess

By Guest Blogger: Sarah Hennessey FSPA


Usually when people find out I’m a Catholic sister there follows some basic assumptions. Some people wonder where I’ve put my “black get-up” or habit, my wooden ruler and my stern look. More stereotypes than assumptions, I’m still surprised how often these come up. Behind these images are the ideas that I must be a teacher, I probably pray all day and I most certainly could lead the rosary at a drop of a hat. Actually, I work in a parish, my day integrates prayer, ministry and social time and, as a convert, the first time I was asked to lead the rosary I immediately Googled “how to pray the rosary.”

Catholic sisters do not (and maybe never have) fit the narrow boxes that popular culture wants to put us in. I’m sure this is true for most people and whatever stereotype clings to them. Individuals are always gloriously unique and rarely fit neatly into categories. One assumption about Catholic sisters remains most insistent: that in some way I live a holier than average life and enjoy a special intimacy with God.

The recently published, lengthy interview that Pope Francis gave intrigued me in many ways, no more strongly than in his first few sentences. They appear in the Sept. 30 issue of America magazine and the article “A Big Heart Open to God” by author Antonio Spadaro, S.J. He describes the beginning of his interview: “I ask Pope Francis point-blank: ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’”

It’s not false humility or a way to avoid answering the question. I am a sinner. That’s how I know myself most intimately and raw, honest and real. That’s how God knows me and loves me still. God loves me in my most broken places and that is true holiness.

Sarah Hart, a Catholic singer-songwriter from Nashville, performed a concert at our church this weekend. It wasn’t a distant, stiff performance; instead, she shared her life and faith so honestly she made us stretch beyond our comfort zones. We couldn’t sit back and observe. We were changed.

Better Than a Hallelujah, one of the songs she wrote, (recorded by Amy Grant and nominated for a GRAMMY award), shows this truth of God meeting us in our brokenness. As Sarah sang, “Beautiful, the mess we are.”

God loves a lulluby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

God loves the drunkard’s cry
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

The woman holding on for life
The dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes

The tears of shame for what’s been done
The silence when the words won’t come
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes


Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out, singing out


(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)
Better than a Hallelujah
(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)

I know I find God when I am at my worst. Sarah Hart’s song reminds me that God doesn’t view me through my own lens of fear and shame. God knows I am a sinner. And God’s mercy still reigns. “Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.”

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  1. Thanks, Sarah. I just made a copy of the song for a resident of the transitional house where I am at work. I had to go to her bed last night because a roommate complained of the alcohol smell. She admitted, “I drank.” She gave me the mouthwash and vanilla (alcohol sources) she had hidden away in her top drawer. In processing all this she wrote of her day, “My boyfriend broke up with me and I’m stressed out about school & I just couldn’t take it any more.” And then, in tears, she asked me to pray for her. I told her that when she wakes up at 1, and at 2, and at 3 in the morning, she can know that our Sisters are praying for her in the chapel at the motherhouse. She can say to God, ” I’ve got people on my side,” and go back to sleep.

    1. Living in a time when the congress of our country is at loggerheads with the needs of the people: this is messy business. If the law of the land can be put on hold as a political strategy: this is messy business. Wrapping compassionate love around people I disagree with and acknowledging that “I am that… ” blindness, fear, distrust, intolerance: It gets messy. On this St. Francis day, I struggle to kiss the leper. But hey, I’ll give it a try. .

  2. Beautiful post. Thank you. The messiness, the varied experience, the varied perceptions feel real to me. And appropriate. We are but humans living a life. Sometimes consciously. I love your depth of inquiry Sr. Sarah.