Discipleship and Decay: Why I Resist Greatness

In this part of the world (here in the Upper Midwest, in the United States of America), it’s the season of decay. Decay is colorful, creative, expansive. Alive. When one walks through the woods in the crisp autumn air, one may notice a full rainbow of fungus speckling the path, the rotting logs and devouring the freshly fallen leaves. In this ordinary magnificence, a path to discipleship is revealed.

“Lactarius Indigo in the wisconsin northwoods” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The thing about life letting go of what was vibrant, growing and outreaching — those wide, bright green leaves, for example, allowing themselves to die and decay into the path, the soil, into food for a whole other species — is that the transformation requires a release, a death. By God’s designs, nature shows us that we are meant to be downwardly mobile, small, self-giving; sacrificial love for the greater good: every creature is made to pray this way through its being, through how it shows up and shares. Ourselves included.

As you may have heard, last month I had a highly unusual experience (most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity). The government of Singapore invited me to speak at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies. I only dreamed of visiting Asia, never expecting it. I certainly never anticipated traveling to the other side of the world in luxury, all expenses paid. I remain in awe of the generous hospitality that I experienced from my hosts and that I was permitted to bring my Dad with me and share the experience with him. I deeply appreciate the privilege and honor of the entire experience, for it really was amazing: I am still unpacking what I learned and gained in Singapore. What a gift!

sister Julia walsh speaking on the Main stage at ICCS, Singapore 2022.

And, at the same time, I remain confused, challenged and uncomfortable about what I went through. The truth is that the experiences leading up to, during and after the conference stretched me, brought me out of my comfort zone and caused me to feel pressure and stress. I remain embarrassed by my “performance,” because I know I am capable of giving better speeches and facilitating clearer reflective experiences — I know I can speak Truth more boldly.

Performance, though, was not the point. Unless one is an entertainer, performance isn’t ever the point. For Christians, called to imitate Jesus Christ, the point is always presence, witness, service: love. This was my focus when I went to Singapore and ought to be my focus every day. The charism of my Franciscan community is presence, and authentic, loving presence is what I did offer — with all my might — in Singapore. If I am truly being a Franciscan, centered in Eucharist, then I am called to show up and give as Christ does in the Blessed Sacrament, as holy bread blessed, broken and shared.

“The bread of Life in the Mary of the Angels chapel in St. Rose convent” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

As I prepared to go to Singapore, I grappled with my discomfort openly. My hosts knew I was uncomfortable, and they went to great extents to care for me. My community at The Fireplace and many of my Franciscan Sisters listened to me as I spoke about my struggles with the situation. Friends held me as I cried. Doctors assured me I was OK, offered suggestions. This all made sense and lined up with what I know: we receive strength and clarity when we are vulnerable in relationship, when we surrender to what is true.

What contributed to my struggle, however, were the comments I heard assuring me that I was entitled to the privileges of the experience, as if I deserved some sort of greatness — as if the surprise gift I never asked for was some sort of an achievement, a start of some sort. “This is such a wonderful recognition of your good work!” “You have been working so hard to arrive to this point!” “God has great plans for you!” “Great things are ahead for you!” “It won’t be long now and you’ll need an assistant.” “Congratulations!” I heard it all. I squirmed and smiled and sighed.

We are made to be as humble as decay becoming dirt.

I don’t feel called to be great. I feel called to be faithful to the Gospel. I feel committed to letting Jesus Christ shine through me.

By his life, death and resurrection, Jesus, has shown us The Way. Jesus is The Way, and the way is like the little ones in the forest that give themselves, the bark that peels from the tree, that releases and decays into dirt. Yes, Christians must embrace the humility of the dirt: dirt with a history, becoming a pathway to new life. If there is any greatness for those who are in Christ, the greatness is in Christ, in the smallness of service for the sake of other life.

Ratings, scores, sales, likes, followers, reviews, promotions: we live in a society, a whole-wide world, that is based on achievements, on climbing up ladders, on rising to greatness, on upward mobility. This, though, is not the Christian path. Following Jesus is countercultural; we are not made for greatness. We are called to be faithful; to love, serve, be present, provoke, witness. We are made to be as humble as decay becoming dirt. We are meant to love like Jesus upon the cross.

And if by our discipleship and resistance, God is known to be great, then so be it, so be it. For yes indeed, God is great! Amen.

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