Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.
I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.
Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.
In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46
Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.
But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.
“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.
My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”
“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”
“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”
“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”
“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a bench – they’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavier – they might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”
The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.
I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.
Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.
So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. 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 Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
I spend most of time going through life assuming that I am basically a good person who is OK with God. But, every now and then, I notice ugly thoughts jumble around inside me: Give them what they deserve! Or, Lock them up and throw away the key! Or, Thank God they’re not my problem to deal with!
Upon recognizing such thinking in myself there are two layers of horror and disgust. First, I am shocked by the awfulness and ugliness of the attitude, which is far from the Way of Christ. Second, I am terrified that such thoughts are authentically coming from me—a “good person.” When I realize that yes, I really thought that, it is an indicator that the structures of social sin really do have an influence over me—so much so that even my mind has shifted away from compassion and mercy.
Jesus, too, understood the ugliness of social sin and the way it can corrupt the thinking of good people. Challenged with the question “who is my neighbor?” his reply stretches his audience to widen their view:
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” –Luke 10:29-37
The despised Samaritan becomes the “good guy,” the one who models how to practice the law of love, while the expected holy ones—the priest and scholar—miss the chance to serve. The false, deeply engrained perceptions are challenged so that the Kingdom of God can break through.
All these centuries later and across the globe, it turns out that wrong thinking has influence over our societal structures as well. Compared to other nations, the people in the United States demand more punishment for crimes; we want to be tough, not merciful. This insistence means that the for-profit private detention industry is booming. Plus, we greatly surpass every other nation for the amount of people we have put behind bars. Even though our nation has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA!
The people behind these bars are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors who Jesus calls us to love. They are the broken body of Christ in need of mercy and kindness. They are fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters. Our sin tears parents from children. Our wrong thinking—focused more on punishment than mercy—is festering wounds in families, neighborhoods and cities.
The good news is that we do not need to get stuck; no keys are really thrown away. We can repent for the sin of our wrong-thinking and continued allowance of bad public policy.
Let us give God our broken hearts and broken systems. Let us grow closer to Christ upon the Christ, bearing our wounds and sorrow. Such an intimacy with Christ can transform the prisons of our wrong thinking and create new hearts within us. The Kingdom of God shall break forth, the prisoner shall be released, and we all will be liberated from the damage of social sin.
Changed by God, we will then be able to rejoice and announce the good news: freedom and forgiveness for all, the day of favor has arrived!
Last summer my partner and I spent a month in Ireland. Below is a reflection I wrote after climbing Croagh Patrick, an ancient pilgrimage site where St. Patrick was said to have fasted for 40 days in the 5th century.
Up the holy mountain. Following a stream of stones and prayers into the mist. The fern-green embrace holds my pilgrimage. With each step it becomes clear that this mountain has known me from the beginning of time. It cradles the infinite. It holds in its heart specks of stars and primordial clay. It vibrates with the energy of the cosmos.
The final ascent is terrifying. An almost vertical climb on slate slippery stones. My heart drives blood through my body, into my shaky knees, through my ears. I hear its deep, booming pulse. It feels good to stretch, to breath, to move, to burn.
At last the slope begins to curve toward the summit and I see his bed, adorned with rosaries from around the world. A space held sacred for a millennium.
Nearby, the tiny mountain church, where I had hoped to take shelter from the cold and rain, is locked. For a while, I stand under a church eave eating a banana. I get ready to leave and walk around the building.
As I turn the corner, three old Irish men are standing at the church door. One of them has a key. (His daughter was married at the church last year and the priest forgot to ask for the key back.) He flings the doors open. I ask if I can join, and the four of us walk in.
It’s warm and dark and safe in the church. A statue of Patrick stands behind the tabernacle next to Christ on the cross. The fellas walk past the kneelers, up to the simple altar.
They ask me to take their picture with the Saint and the Son of God. I do. Then one them takes out a flask and four small metal cups. He pours the whiskey into the cups on the altar.
He looks to his friends, “Boys, this one’s for Damien.”
He slides me a glass, “Fer the photographer.”
We throw back the whiskey. The warm spreads down my cold body. They ask if I want another. They say if I have a couple more, I could fly down the mountain.
I thank God that the Church, in that moment, was stripped down to what it was meant to be. A place for ordinary people to share life, to create sacrament, to claim as our own. I thank God for the sanctity of complete strangers. I thank God for the Eucharist in a shot of whiskey on the Holy Mountain.
Joe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.