It’s a gray day, one of those types where the clouds hang heavy and seem to block out all sunlight. Inside a cozy lamp-lit room, I am sitting in a circle of ministers training to be spiritual directors and practicing the art of listening. Around the circle, person after person tells a story from their life that is personal.
With each telling, I notice layers of transformation and transition; I hear about the wonder of discovery and the lightness of hope. A phrase comes to mind: the goodness of gray. I jot the words into my notebook and open my heart wide. Although this happened weeks before Advent, “the goodness of gray” remained a constant suggestion, a companion in the season of searching, longing and waiting.
We are people who long for simplicity, who often ache for clearly defined borders and lines. Even though we may know that complexity and conversion is healthy and natural, we are comfortable with what’s predictable, what we know, what feels safe.
There may have been times when answers were easy, when we knew what to expect. For some it was the patterns of childhood, the days of easy answers and comfort zones. For others, we found solace in the rituals of our religion or what was considered proper and polite. Our memories might be hazy, but nostalgia convinces that there was a time when much stood strong on solid ground. Elected leaders compromised. Polarities were unusual. Religious life was defined. Democracy was functional. Unity and peace were valued and Churches were places of refuge and calm.
Now, we don’t know about much. Nearly everything we are familiar with — from the structures of Church and society, to technology and the ecosystems sustaining us — seems to be in transition, in flux. What we forget, though, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they smell fresher, lighter?
Do you tell yourself stories of meaning and mystery? Do you let the metaphors dance in the shadows of your bedroom while you remember your past and invent your fate?
Do you pray in the silence? Do you pray with song? Do you pray on the busy streets?
Do you slice up your words and put them into a pot to simmer like stew until they become a nourishment thicker than alphabet soup?
Do you go through doors to places that are wordless, spaces where the only sound heard is the buzz of light warming you? Do you let words illumine you?
Do you pick up your pen and draw circles in your journal? Do you then color those circles in with lines and dreams, a blend of babbles and breath? Do you ask Spirit to help you to make sense of what comes from your imagination, from the cavern of your soul? Do you ask the Spirit to help you make sense of anything?
How do you pray?
Do you pray with poetry or psalms? Do you pray in your sleep? Do you pray under water?
Do you let the word take the shape of your fleshy, wrinkled, brain?
Do words tick in the territory of your heart? Are they fleshy like moving muscle, tightening and expanding and allowing for the flow of living blood?
Do you allow your womb to expand, for the Spirit to write beauty and truth through you?
In the Northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, the day when we experience the least sunlight.
We’re still in the season of Advent, the season of longing and hope. Even if the preparations and Christmas celebrations of this season have had you feeling busy and stressed, you still have time to tune into God’s graces, to notice how God is working in your struggles and joys.
To help you lean toward the light, to trust in its coming, I now offer you the top five Advent reflections from Messy Jesus Business since this blog began over nine years ago.
Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration. (Read more)
When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.
Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. (Read more.)
Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.
Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.
My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. (Read More)
“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.
“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.
“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”
As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”
I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? (Read More)
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today. (Read more)
May the Light of Christ transform you all, and give you great peace! Happy Solstice!
Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.
Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.
My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.
I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point — God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”
The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.
We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers — advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world — we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.
Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God — the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller. And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled — the desire for the God to whom we belong.
A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point — God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.
In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening — a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives.
Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings — our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.
This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.
In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart — that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
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 met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
Every year around this time, companies ramp up marketing campaigns that do their best to connect contentment with consumerism. Feeling lonely? Buy a candy cane latte. Feeling grief? Buy more holiday decorations. Feeling afraid and anxious as you watch the daily news in a world plagued by family separations, endless wars and mass shootings? Buy this year’s feel-good holiday movie.
These solutions to our loneliness, sold on every corner of our commute, might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic — fixes so profoundly lacking in their shallow attempts to remedy the deep spiritual crisis that so many of us are experiencing in our so-called “developed” capitalist society.
For nearly seven of the past years, I have lived in Bolivia, South America, and formed community with Bolivian families and friends whose holiday traditions have yet to be consumed by a Western capitalist definition of Christmas.
Living in another culture has challenged me to reflect on the cultural traditions in my own, especially around the holiday season.
I know personally many Bolivian children who now expect a Christmas tree and presents from their parents because that is how they saw Christmas defined on TV. Though their families may have never before celebrated with a tree and material gifts, the pressure to conform to a traditional capitalist Christmas grows every year.
Unfortunately, what we often fail to recognize about the global push towards development under capitalism is that it also includes an increase in consumerism. As many of us in the so-called “developed” world work slowly to reduce our own consumption, large corporations are working at a much more accelerated pace to inspire more consumption in other parts of the world. But replicating our materialistic lifestyles on a global scale is simply a model our planet cannot sustain.
And now, as I think about how we got to where we are as a global community, I wonder: where has this constant push towards endless growth, development and consumerism brought us? Are we more generous? Are we more empathetic? Are we less lonely?
Do our cultural holiday traditions in affluent Catholic communities in the United States reflect the values that we hold? If not, why not? How might we transform them? How have we allowed capitalism to uproot our Christian values?
When I reflect back on my own experiences of exchanging gifts around Christmas time, what I value most about those memories was the opportunity to know and be known.
Isn’t that what we all really want, to feel known and to know that we are not alone? When we experience the excitement of unwrapping a present, aren’t we really hoping to unwrap the gift of love?
We may be accustomed to the instant gratification of material things, but we can definitely live without them. We cannot live without each other.
As the wisdom of many Bolivian friends of mine has taught me, when we feel afraid, anxious and alone, we need each other — we need community, not more consumption.
This holiday season we must ask ourselves, are our holiday traditions feeding our hunger for connection and community? How might we liberate ourselves from the stress, distraction and debt of holiday spending and invest instead in radical inclusion, expanding our community to include those living on the margins? How might we reduce our dependence on the sins of a corrupt capitalist system and instead grow in interdependence with one another?
One way to start is by collectively engaging our communities in these questions. In sharing these questions together, we may open ourselves to hearing the needs of our neighbors. Doing so could enable us to share the gifts of love and presence and, in exchange, liberate us from the sins of consumerism.
Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.