Appropriately disturbed and loving my distant Aleppo neighbor

Along with many people far and near, I have been terribly disturbed by images from the Syrian war recently. Appropriately disturbed.

Early last week, I felt physically ill while I watched a news story about doctors and hospitals being targeted by airstrikes.

Then, just a few days later, the images of Omran Daqneesh, the five year-old-boy who sat dazed and bloody in an ambulance in Aleppo, stirred compassion, outrage and prayers from many of us.

Here is the disturbing video of Omran being rescued by aid workers:

Since the video and pictures of his rescue went viral Omran’s older brother Ali–along with at least 148 other chilldren of Aleppo just this month–died.

Thousands of miles are between me and the people suffering in Syria. Entering into their experiences through the news, images, and videos is tough. Really though, the turmoil that it surfaces in me is miniscule compared to what makes up their daily life.  

Yet, I am tempted to turn away from loving my neighbor. The challenging truth of suffering and injustice could spiral me into a state of helplessness. What can I do? I am too distant from the pain to be able to help rescue people or offer comfort, food or water. I feel like I have no power or wealth to end the conflict. I could resign, throw my hands up, “I can’t keep up! I can’t handle it!”

I am tempted to turn away from the Gospel of love and mercy, to reject hope and leave it behind me, ignore the suffering of my distant neighbors, and return to enjoying the comforts of my safe and privileged life.

War is ugly and can bring out the worst in us.

Yes, war is ugly, but discipleship necessary.

When it comes to loving our neighbors thousands of miles away, solidarity becomes a demanding spiritual practice. We unite in prayer, enter into relationship, and respond with compassionate actions. We allow ourselves to be disturbed and uncomfortable while we pray and and act, because we know that others are very, very uncomfortable.

Although ending war may be complex and difficult, living the Gospel is really quite simple: every choice is guided by sacrificial love.

So let us pray!

For all the children like Omran and Ali, the children living and dying in war, let us pray. For an end to war and conversion of hearts, let us pray. For peace and an increase of hope among us, let us pray:

A Prayer For The People Of Syria

Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,

the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope.
Hear the cries of the people of Syria;
bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
and comfort to those mourning the dead.
Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors 
in their care and welcome for refugees.
Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms,
and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.

O God of hope and Father of mercy,
your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs.
Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence 
and to seek reconciliation with enemies.
Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

(Source: USCCB)

Let us also offer generous support to organizations who have remained present to the victims of war, even while risking their own safety and security. According to my research (and I am willing to be corrected) these are the best organizations to donate to, in order to assist the people of Aleppo in particular:

UNICEF

Doctors Without Borders

International Rescue Committee

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Catholic Relief Services

 

Let us join together and devote ourselves to protecting the life and dignity of God’s children everywhere—no matter how long or exhausting the struggle or how deep the heartache. Pope Francis’ wisdom that “our infinite sadness can only be cured by infinite love” can direct us.

No matter how awful the circumstances or how distant our neighbor, love must disturb us and we must keep being the people God has called us to be.

Prayer for Children of Syria by Bro. Mickey O'Neill Mcgrath, OSFS Source: http://bromickeymcgrath.com
“Prayer for Children of Syria” by Bro. Mickey O’Neill Mcgrath, OSFS (ource: http://bromickeymcgrath.com)

 

 

Being merciful to yourself in the Year of Mercy

Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!

My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.

Photo Credit: http://images.marianweb.net/archives/library/bemerciful.jpg

Here are a few:

  1. Having a thought does not make it true

I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…

  1. Neither repress nor obsess

When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.

  1. I can’t. God can. Let God.

This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”

  1. People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).

When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…

  1. Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.

Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.

  1. God. God. God.

Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:

  • Give everything to God.
  • Increase my self-care.
  • Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
  • Choose to use the elements in my toolbox: prayer, exercise, support and healthy mental (sk)illness (which I wrote about in “Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed”).

And …

I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.

mercy meme

About The Rabble Rouser

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

Hearts wide open: in the sky, on earth

Happy Feast of St. Clare! The following prose-poetry is dedicated to her.

This past Monday I drove north, from Kansas City to La Crosse, through lush fields of green growing up towards the sky. As I moved, my eyes focused on the constant road. It was an all-day drive after a two-month pilgrimage of study, retreat, service, connecting and contemplation in states called Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. (At one point this summer I also saw South Dakota from the other side of the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa.)

Now I am back in Wisconsin resisting (partly) a necessary reset of my mind after an experience among a community of creative Christians at The Glen Workshop: I am trying to write an academic paper while poetry in my memory and future propel me backward and forward–as the language of academia conflicts with what my soul desires. This tension is a bit like the thunderstorms that clouds can create; the electricity of the different parts of my mind can also create downpours.

Driving north over concrete and asphalt my gaze floated upward toward the expansive sky, bright blue and full of the puffs of evolving white clouds–clouds slow dancing with cheer and optimism. The clouds moved, merged, formed shapes of glory, as The Great Artist presented signs and affirmations by way of the best piece of interactive installation art ever made: this infinite, expanding universe. With each opening created in the clouds, I pondered my constant sense that The Great Artist was providing encouraging nods of “Keep moving in the right direction” and “Yes, you are part of my wonders, too.”

In the silver machine of mystery (the car, so it is to me) I listened to phenomenal podcasts as I made my way over horizons and toward my home. The words of poets, scientists and journalists multiplied my awe for the beauty and complexity of God’s creation, of this world made so multidimensional by the way we humans interact with God’s doings and pretty much make messes all over the place. I was completely blown away when I heard Paulo Coelho speak about his journey into becoming a writer. I was inspired by how Naomi Shihab Nye overturns the poetry found in ordinary life. I was flabbergasted by the scientific discoveries being made about the intelligence of the forest. And, I was horrified by the reality of what life is like for refugees in Greece nowadays. In each story told, the true wildness of who God made us to be and who we are was exposed: we are one, the body of Christ revealed by way of loving, enfleshed in service and creativity.

Across the expansive sky I saw diamonds and other mysterious shapes made from clouds.  I saw hearts form, widen, evolve. Over rolling plains of farmland, human stories sort-of hugged me in the car container from all sides; tales of tough Truth and invitations to participate in God’s goodness came at me in surround sound. I gasped and grinned for the beauty of the images combined with Truth made into sounds, for the swirling mess of life and beauty enfleshed everywhere.

Hands on steering wheel, mind awake, foot on pedal, eyes wide open, heart expanding. Through God, in God, and by God the clouds moved. And so did I. So did all of us, as one.

"heart in the sky" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“heart in the sky” by Julia Walsh FSPA

Lessons learned from my students

A few weeks ago I saw my first “Back to School” flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.

This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no “back to school” for me.

To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"Stones in Trout Lake" near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Stones in Trout Lake” near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA