It is hot as I walk across the grass. Really hot, with a heat index of 108 degrees, and the humidity is oppressive. Heavier than the heat are the thoughts in my own mind. Grief, pain and depression mix with this pervading sense of loss.
I’m sad because of the chaos which is our world today, consumed with lives lost to war every day, unrelenting gun violence and our current pandemic. The divisions in our country and our church seem unbearable. I carry with me the more private griefs of 20 years of intense depression, the very real challenges of diminishment in our own FSPA congregation and the sometimes overwhelming anxieties of daily life. Hope seems very distant.
But I am not alone. I am in San Antonio, Texas, at Giving Voice — a national gathering of Catholic sisters under the age of 50. In memory of the story from Luke 24:13-35 in which the recently-risen Jesus appears to two disciples, in groups of three, we are taking an Emmaus Walk. The disciples are discouraged and grief-stricken as they leave Jerusalem to go to their hometown of Emmaus. A stranger appears to them and explains the scripture about why the Messiah died. They invite him into their home where he breaks and blesses the bread. Then they realize that it is Jesus and that “our hearts were burning within us as he talked to us along the Way.”
With my Giving Voice sisters, we retraced this story in prayer and contemplation and then got out of our seats and went out into the 108 degree heat (!) to share our own personal stories with one another. Like the two disciples walking full of discouragement, grief and perhaps shame, we shared all that burdens our hearts today. As we walked, I found true companionship in these sisters and a sense that Christ silently walked with us.
We were invited to share our grief, our hopes that have never become reality, and while we walked, we did. We also shared our joy, sense of purpose, passion and that connection which nourishes us in religious life. I can’t tell you how life-giving it is to share with these sisters. With passion and a burning heart, at this my fifth and final Giving Voice gathering (since I will turn 50 before the next event), I share with new and old friends alike. We are over 70 sisters from more than 40 congregations speaking 12 native languages from 16 countries all serving in the U.S. We are a living model of intercultural, intercommunity and intergenerational reality that is religious life today.
While I cannot divulge the confidential stories I heard on our Emmaus Walk, I would like to share my own personal insights. After the walk, we had some time for personal integration during which I went and prayed in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. It was there that I received a very clear message, almost like hearing a voice. “Jesus is here whether you like it or not.”
What? What does this mean? In these words, I felt the reassuring presence of Jesus sticking with us, no matter what.
I felt a sense of that prior claim that brought me to religious life in the first place. Through it all, I am worth it. It is worth the effort to keep going. I cannot carry burdens that are not mine. I am enough. I am called to do my part, whatever that might be. And often it means cutting through the terror and depression that paralyze me, to choose trust.
“Jesus is here, whether we like it or not.” The Emmaus Walk in scripture happens the very day that Jesus is risen. The post-resurrection stories are full of juxtaposition — tears and joy, terror and hope. Each person is faced with a choice: go back to the way things were (the old job, the hometown, the business as usual) or accept a life turned upside down.
The last few years have made clear to me that there will be no new normal. The world may feel like a blazing dumpster fire, but it is that very chaos that makes my choice more clear. Terror or Trust. Apathy or everyday small actions that make a difference. In this chaos, Jesus is here despite our personal preferences. We are not abandoned. Like the two disciples on the road — who chose to return to Jerusalem with all of its dangerous choices — our hearts are burning within us.
Sarah Hennessey, FSPA, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became 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 her Franciscan community, poetry and singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse.