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.