Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer

By guest blogger Amy Nee

On Ash Wednesday in 2012 I heard:

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” – Isaiah 43:19

Last year, when I heard these words at the start of Lent I felt as though God was proclaiming them directly to me. Holding them in contemplation, I was met with another word: compost. At first I took it as an intrusive thought, but soon found it to be my mantra for Lent.

As I looked forward to what was new, I felt encouraged to see what had come before as compost. Not as garbage, but as something that was good and that will continue to be good, so long as it is put in its appropriate place. Like fruit in its season that is good to be eaten fresh, but will grow rotten if it is kept into the next. Yet, it will continue to be good and nurturing in a new way if it is returned to the earth. It will feed and inform what is to come.This year, what I pray for in Lent is a me that is also always changing. Not in a way that is fickle, but flexible –a tree that remains rooted even while transforming with the season. A me that is fresh, that is able to receive and to hold all the good that is bewilderingly and beautifully so continually poured into me.

IMG_0325

A prayer book that was given to me says “Lent invites us to get back to the basics.” I think it’s a good time to not worry so much about what is new, what may or may not happen, whether or not I will respond skillfully or shabbily and to consider the base that feeds my responses and ways of being.

The Ash Wednesday reading this year is from the prophet Joel. God asks, “Return to me, with all your heart.” – Joel 2:12

I think of repentance as a turning and as a returning – not unlike how the seasons are always turning and returning to what was before but in a new way that is particular to the present. And I think too about how much I have drifted into trying to resolve my struggles through analyses, through making a project of myself, through creating unfair expectations that other people or places in my life meet my needs and desires.

The Gospels help me know the basics.  I must love my neighbor and I must serve others as directed in Matthew 25 – the Works of Mercy. Whatever else changes, these remain. And I can choose to remain with them. They are very particular, specific actions that can be practiced anywhere, with anyone. Both practical and impossible, they reveal principles I can practice whatever my surroundings. They also show principles I can use to measure new practices I’m invited into, so long as I continue revolving back toward the center, returning to God in prayer and practice. I daresay the basics are enough to keep me busy, to be both the fruit of and fertilizer for a sacred life!

And with all this in mind, I offer a reading from Rumi (a 13th-century Persian, poet, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic):

 The One Thing You Must Do

 There is one thing in this world which you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there is nothing to worry about, but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.

 It is as if a king has sent you to some country to do a task, and you perform a hundred other services, but not the one he sent you to do. So human beings come to this world to do particular work. That work is the purpose, and each is specific to the person. If you don’t do it, it’s as though a knife of the finest tempering were nailed into a wall to hang things on. For a penny an iron nail could be bought to serve for that.

 Remember the deep root of your being, the presence of your lord. Give your life to the one who already owns your breath and your moments. If you don’t, you will be like the one who takes a precious dagger and hammers it into his kitchen wall for a peg to hold his dipper gourd. You will be wasting valuable keenness and foolishly ignoring your dignity and your purpose.

Pentagon reflection: black hoods, white faces and the enemy within

by Guest Blogger Amy Nee Walker (with Witness Against Torture this week)

I am in D.C. again, continuing the tradition of gathering each January with men and women of the community called Witness Against Torture. The group gathers each year, and works throughout the year, toward the closure of Guantanamo, appropriate legal trials for those detained, and freedom for those who are innocent. We gather out of love for one another and for those unjustly bound; we gather hoping that dreams of justice can be come reality.

In September 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif – a Yemeni national who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 – was found dead.. This man, cleared for release three times by the Bush Administration and again by the Obama Administration, was a poet, a son, a father. With hunger strikes, Adnan protested his unjust imprisonment. His actions led to brutal – and illegal – force feedings, beatings, and further mistreatment by the hands of his American captors. Below is a poem he wrote while living in the detention center:

Hunger Strike Poem

They are criminals, increasing their crimes.

They are criminals, claiming to be peace-loving.

They are criminals, torturing the hunger strikers.

They are artists of torture,

They are artists of pain and fatigue,

They are artists of insults and humiliation.

They are faithless—traitors and cowards—

They have surpassed devils with their criminal acts.

They do not respect the law,

They do not respect men,

They do not spare the elderly,

They do not spare the baby-toothed child.

They leave us in prison for years, uncharged,

Because we are Muslims.

Where is the world to save us from torture?

Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?

Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

But we are content, on the side of justice and right,

Worshipping the Almighty.

And our motto on this island is, salaam.

Portrait of Adnan Farhan Latif
Adnan Farhan Latif

 

We entered singing at seven a.m.on Monday onto the designated protest grounds of the Pentagon Building. Early in the hour-long vigil I began to notice things. I noticed I was tired from waking at 5:30 a.m. I noticed my throat was irritated, but less so than yesterday. I noticed my wrists were feeling cramped from helping hold a large black canvas banner with white lettering, “Close Guantanamo.”

Behind me the names of detainees were being read with steady reverence, interspersed with a chorus of “Courage, Muslim Brother,” and poems composed by the detained men. I tried to focus on the names, on the distant, aching lives for which those names are a small symbol that we grasp. But I could not feel their presence this morning. Before me was a steady stream of men and women, so many, so varied, and I noticed that I had not been attending to their presence either, more absorbed in the looming building, our agenda, myself.

As a young child, I would avert my eyes from people’s faces. I suppose it stemmed from an anxiety of being seen, not looking was hiding. But instead of providing me a safe view, my hiding eyes hid others from me, and my world was very small. Gently, firmly, patiently, my parents taught me to expand that world. Taking my face in their hands, they taught me to make eye contact with them, then, gradually, to look to others who were speaking. I began to practice, to become attentive, to take people in and to give myself with a gaze.

High in the wide windows of the Pentagon, breaking dawn was being revealed. The sun began to shine behind us, police officers facing us donned sunglasses to shade their eyes, and I opened mine. Faces of every shade and shape passed by, old and young, in formal and casual and military attire. I was surprised at the diversity. Some looked toward us, seeming to read the signs, though their face offered no acknowledgement of our presence. Others turned their heads. Those who swerved to the far side of the walkway to avoid nearness put me in mind of passersby on a New York City sidewalk, afraid of the man on the corner who might laden them with unwanted coupons, the woman in the doorway asking for money. A few—pale, sharp-faced men with clipped gaits and military garb—looked toward us (though not at anyone in particular) with large, leering grins, sardonic and spiteful. I felt reflexively sick and chilled at the sight of these men. I saw them as disturbing, even disgusting, and I wanted them to be disgusted at themselves. And then I realized what I was doing. I was not looking at these people to see who they were, recognizing their humanity and wholeness. I was seeing them as I felt, worse than looking away, judging them from my small world.

Behind me, the program of readings continued and I heard the words of Luke Nephew’s poem, “There is a man under that hood…” His poem beautifully and concisely encapsulates the spirit of love, active-compassion, and respect for life that draws me to Witness Against Torture, and to the Catholic Worker; a spirit that I hope to embody. It is love, active-compassion, and respect for all lives –

Mr. President, I want you to know, that if it were you hooded and chained We would be standing right here, demanding the same basic human rights for you… If it were you facing indefinite detention Mr. Senator, We would march in these streets with your name on our backs We would fast In solidarity with your hunger strike, Mrs. Congresswoman Even while months of breathing through black cloth made you cough We would speak for you Mr. Newsman, Mrs. Citizen, we would be here for you… –knowing that individuals are more than the images we see, whether that image be a black hood, a white face, or our own face in the mirror.

During the Fasters Meeting after the vigil, Jules commented, “hearts and minds were hard to change there.” Each year that I come to D.C. with WAT, each day that I put on the hood, I am challenged with the recognition that I am still hiding, guarding myself with quick judgments of another that makes less of us both. I find that the one heart and mind I can know is my own, and it too needs changing, stretching; gently, firmly, patiently stretching and seeing that we are all far more expansive and complex than eyes can perceive. In this, community is both a comfort and a constant chastening. Ever revealing and reminding us of one another’s beautiful, bewildering, cruel and kind, fragile and sturdy, contradictory, mysterious being; and giving us the chance to practice again and again how to respond in love and truth.

Amy Nee at January 2013 Witness Against Torture vigil in DC photo by Justin Norman
Amy Nee at January 2013 Witness Against Torture vigil in DC photo by Justin Norman

 

Witness Against Torture photo
Photo credit: http://witnesstorture.org/blog/2013/01/09/fast-for-justice-2013-day-3/
People protesting
Photo credit: http://witnesstorture.org/blog/category/fast-for-justice-2013/

Advent is drawing to a close

By guest blogger: Amy Nee

Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us.  Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly.  I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.

How often this is the case!  I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time.  So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it.  Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment.  Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.

But it’s not too late!  Advent is not over yet!  And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen.  I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table.  An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.

Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt.  Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his).  Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1

And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph.  Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting.  Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.”  Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.

“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements.  Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered.  Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity).  He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.

The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today.  That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.

Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season.  The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present.  The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”

So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place.  And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”?  What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision?  Where am I blinded by lack of imagination?  What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?

This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.

Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.

Two worker houses: where ‘stranger becomes neighbor’

Guest blogger, Amy Nee

One evening in May I sat on windowsill in the room I’d recently moved into at New York’s Maryhouse Catholic Worker. With legs folded into the frame, I watched a little window of sky that subtly made the dramatic shift from pale yellow to blazing pink without comment.  I was sitting with the thought that while I had spent my day absorbed in preparing for, hosting and cleaning up after a memorial service at Maryhouse, my Chicago-area White Rose Catholic Worker friends were participating in a nonviolent uprising that swelled in response to the NATO summit. 

Four demonstrators hold signs protesting at the NATO Summit in Chicago.
Demonstrators gather during the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 2012. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

These two communities, offshoots from the trunk of one movement, are sustained and shaped by the life and writings of the same woman (the venerable Ms. Day), and have at different times been home and church and classroom to the same woman (the ephemeral Ms. Nee). Yet, to the untrained eye, these sister houses can look almost opposite. 

White Rose: a half-dozen, highly educated, fair-skinned youths with the occasional overnight guest, all dedicated and devoted to sustainable living, social justice education and nonviolence not only in every action but in every word and expression as well. 

Maryhouse: twenty-five folks, a majority over fifty years old, of varying color, creed and acumen together in a household that day after day admits dozens of women and offers showers, clothes, a balanced meal and company (not guaranteed to be cheerful, but ever-present, nonetheless).

The exterior of Maryhouse Catholic Worker
Maryhouse Catholic Worker captured by Julia Walsh, FSPA, during her April 2012 visit.

 At the former I would spend three hours in a meeting (the results of which would be revisited, rehashed and revised the following week).  At the latter I spend three hours folding clothes that the following day will be stashed in bags, tossed on the floor and probably, eventually abandoned on park benches.  I often find both tasks more maddening than enlightening.  All the same, I consider the time well spent. 

At the former, each day, we concerned ourselves with the issues of the world – war, torture, environment, oppression of all kinds. And, we sought to educate (ourselves and others), create alternatives and partake in nonviolent demonstrations, open the door to others that we might eat and talk and play and pray together.  At the latter we concern ourselves with individuals in our community and neighborhood: the hungry, sick, lonely, weary in innumerable ways. We cook lunches, wash dishes, offer clean clothes and showers, visit hospitals, celebrate and mourn. 

I am often astounded at how two communities of the same movement could be so different.  One might be tempted to compare: which is better? which more successful? which meets the greatest need?  These questions, I think, are alluring as forbidden fruit that promises the knowledge of good and evil upon ingestion.  The end result, as our first parents demonstrated, is not an answer that reveals truth, but a blade that cuts apart holy wholeness, introduces shame and accusation and ultimately separates the seeker from the Word of Truth, that is to say, Love.

“ ‘In the end, the only thing that matters is love,’ those are the last words I ever heard from her mouth,” a woman shares at the memorial for Rita Corbin held at Maryhouse on Sunday.  Hers was one of many stories remembering the life of this prolific artist whose woodcuts, since the 1950s, have oft adorned the pages of the Catholic Worker newspaper and whose life infiltrated and enriched far more than just our readers. 

Image of Rita Corbin's Works of Mercy artwork.
Rita Corbin’s “Works of Mercy”

The gathering elicited reflections that evoked both laughter and tears.  Rita’s now adult children played folk music.  We served coffee and punch and huge platters of fried rice and salad with Wasabi-citrus dressing that had been specially prepared at St. Joe’s for the occasion.  I alternately filled and washed plates, introduced the food and myself, listened to reminiscences from Rita’s brother and showed visitors to the bathroom.  All the while members of the White Rose, along with thousands of others, marched and sang and maintained a peaceful presence outside (some eventually inside) Obama’s campaign headquarters, amidst an anxious crowd of activists and likely more anxious officers in full riot gear ready to make use of their training and tazers.   

 A critic of one persuasion might consider Maryhouse mundane and trifling, while one of another might consider the White Rose naive and dramatic.  Neither assessment is accurate, nor is the assessment that their actions are so very different.  Both are engaged in attending to matters of life and of death (which one might argue are themselves part of one whole), both are engaged in practicing, to the best of their ability, the Works of Mercy.  These seemingly separate houses seek the same revolution, a revolution of the heart where “stranger” becomes “neighbor” and we learn to love our neighbor as our self; that self that is a divine vessel, bearing the very image of the God who is Love.

Pregnant with hope

Guest blogger: Amy Nee – entry originally published at http://www.catholicsoncall.org/pregnant-hope

Scripture Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2011)

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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. How often the prophets speak of “glad tidings to the poor,” and “release to the prisoner,” of freedom from captivity and healing. I cannot believe that they were only announcing metaphors. These words reveal the vision of God, the image of a Kingdom in which we are called to be co-creators.

A consciousness of this Kingdom is shaped in Mary, as Jesus, the one who would embody it, takes shape in her womb. As Mary, Joseph and Jesus faced the hardships of poverty, heard the news of innocents slaughtered, met the continual challenges of daily life, the joy present when Mary proclaimed the Magnificat was likely not so readily felt. The promise that this little boy was the messiah even as he had to be fed and changed, that the hungry would be filled even as stomachs rumbled, that the mighty would be brought down from their thrones even as they abused their power with as much might as ever, are promises that could not have been easy to believe. Mary no doubt had to draw on the prophecies and experiences that she had treasured up; carrying within her the truths of the Kingdom just as she had carried within her the one who would reveal them.

If advent is a time of preparation, how do we, like John, “prepare the way” in keeping with God’s revealed intention for a world of justice, peace and joy, more a Kin-dom, than a Kingdom, where the disparity between the powerful and the oppressed is leveled? How do we, like Mary, say “let it be with me as you have said” and trust that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are being filled, made whole and holy – spirit, soul and body? As Christians we are called not only to carry, but to become the Body of Christ. What an incredible mystery! Recognition of this compels us toward Paul’s seemingly impossible directives to “rejoice always,” “pray without ceasing,” and “in all circumstance give thanks.” (This from a man who was jailed and persecuted continually; – how keenly he must have felt the hope of liberation!) Such mystery awakes the need to “test everything,” using the tools of prayer, action, honest communication – continually “experimenting with truth,” as Gandhi called it. Taking care to refrain from making assumptions as to what is good and to always be surprised, to always resist evil, even when it seems to seep into everything around us – including us. Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”

In a world that seems so fixed in cycles of violence, it can be difficult to believe that the promised Kin-dom is coming, let alone that it already is. When we see that drone bombs are dropped on children, that dumpsters overflow with food while millions go hungry, and houses stand empty while millions are homeless; when we cut each other apart with our words, and pollute the earth with careless or even intentional consumption – how difficult indeed to hope for healing, for liberation, for full stomachs and joyful hearts! It is difficult to face all this and believe that we can live in a way that challenges the corruption and mends the brokenness that surrounds us; that we can embody a transforming way that sets not only the oppressed but the oppressors free. It seems very difficult, impossible even to enter into Kin-dom living. Yet, we wait for Christ to be revealed. As we wait we create communities of faith where we can challenge one another to affirm God’s vision, spoken by the prophets, incarnate in Jesus, and just possibly, in us. As we live amidst the tension of the Everlasting Not Yet we are offered this hope: God has already accomplished things beyond belief, God is with us; with God, nothing is impossible.

interdependence

Guest blogger: Amy Nee

Last week I was invited to speak as a panelist at the National Religious Vocations Conference in Franklin, Ill., and offered this prompt: “Could you describe two key aspects of your faith life right now? In what ways do you feel called by God?”

Directly following that event I joined my community-mate and fellow beekeeper, Regina, in harvesting our first batch of honey from the two hives of bees we’ve been tending since early spring.

Bee Boxes, by Amy Nee

The fact that I would be sharing in the bounty of the bees after responding to that prompt seemed a coincidence of the providential kind. It shaped my answer. My relationship with the bees is part of my relationship with a farm, which is part of an experiment that arose from a growing desire to participate in healthy food-systems. That desire grew from a slow wakening realization that what we eat can be life-giving or destructive to both our bodies and the earth. My well-being is dependent on the well-being of the earth. The earth’s well-being is dependent on the quality of my relationship with it.  Interdependence: a key aspect of my faith, and a calling.

I went to the conference with the egotistical assumption that I had a challenge for these religious men and women gathered to learn how to connect with youth. I would remind them of the gospel call to justice, attentiveness to the poor, relationships of nonviolence with neighbors, enemies and the earth.  Before speaking I had the opportunity to join them for lunch. I learned of their various missions and ministry which ranged from immigration to prison to spiritual direction. They tended to a broad spectrum of needs, and reminded me of how quietly some serve, how necessarily they narrow their focus in order to live in accordance with the calling they’ve received.

The harvest is great and the laborers are few. I often find myself dwelling on this phrase that Jesus shared with his followers – whispering it resentfully when I see the work piled before me – whether it’s dishes to wash, weeds to pull, corrupt systems to confront or guests to serve – entertaining the idea that because no one is tackling the same task I am they are not heeding God’s call, not laboring in the field. The harvest is great indeed, extending beyond my own vision.  If we all focused on the row of carrots, who would bring in the corn? If we all risked arrest to make a statement, who would prepare a meal for the hungry? If all were busy feeding, who would ask why they hunger?

Protest, by Amy Nee

I am almost painfully conscious of the way the many needs are weaved together: humanity’s poor health to the way we disrespectfully garner the energy of the earth; the accumulation of wealth to the deprivation of the poor; the obsession with security to the abuse of the other. I am conscious, too, that when I try to engage with every angle of these issues, I am stretched thin, little able to support the weight of each. Conversely, when I wear blinders that allow me to focus only on one angle, I am blinded from the intricate relationship between the part and the whole.

This is a lesson the Trinity is continually, quietly teaching – a whole is made of many parts – to be holy is to be whole.  We depend on one another and on other living things. Every action we take affects the earth and those who inhabit it. We are one mystical body of interdependent parts. Any time we isolate ourselves, any time I am only Amy, only human, then I am diminishing other people and living beings and I am diminished; then I am not holy. What is actually me, wholly me, is also you, is also the colony of bees we’re sharing honey with, is also men indefinitely detained in Guantanamo, is also the soil that gives and receives life as the bodies of plants, animals and people rise from and fall to it.

An act of strange love: How I learned to stop worrying and defy the bomb (part 2)

Guest Blogger, Amy Nee (part 2 of 2 ) (Read part 1)

Monday morning I moved from contemplation to action.  As I stood among those trespassing on the construction site, an officer approached, barely in my periphery. “You’re under arrest,” he said, sliding two thin, interlocked, plastic strips over my wrists.  One slipped loose and he tightened both, severely inhibiting circulation in my left arm.  “I want to thank you for wasting our time!” he said, oozing tension and frustration.  The sentiment he voiced was not unusual, nor unreasonable.

Click to read NCR's story about the arrests.

Whether such actions are a waste of time is something I ask myself continually, but he didn’t see our commonality.  His distance from me and our intentions weighed heavy on my heart.   

Other officers were more open, if not to our cause, to our humanity.  The two I approached about my cuffs apologized.  The bus driver told jokes and tolerated our impromptu, uproarious, renditions of freedom songs. Passed from one officer to another, further and further from natural light and air—from an outdoor corral, to a bus, to a garage, to a “lobby” behind bars, to a holding cell—my compassion for these men and women, invested by the state with power to enforce constructed law, steadily grew.  They spent as much, if not more time behind bars than many inmates, pushing paper and people across dingy cement surfaces beneath the flickering glow of fluorescent lights.  A middle-aged woman writing my ticket expressed her regret at not having retired sooner.  A young woman who had been firing off routine inquiries slowed with dubious appreciation when I asked about her day.  A weary male guard entered the women’s cell announcing blankly, “Male-entering,” moving in and out with evident detachment.  

I caught myself falling into the automaton mentality the environment induced.  Bologna sandwiches had just been distributed.  I picked at mine, deep in discernment about whether I should deviate from my meatless ways to consume this finely processed food-stuff.  Suddenly, my name was called by an officer outside the cell.  My immediate reaction was to hurriedly obey, handing off my sandwiches and heading out of the cell without so much as saying goodbye or sharing an embrace with the sisters I was leaving.  I was directed in reverse through halls, picking up the belongings I’d relinquished on the way in, and brought without explanation back to the garage.  The door was opened and the light poured in.  “I can just walk out?” I asked the woman standing stiffly in the shadows.  She nodded.  I walked like one waking from a dream, dazzled by the brightness that engulfed me.

This small incident of obedience to conscience that required civil rebellion, offered a unique taste of liberty and shifted my relationship to societal ideas of what is normal and acceptable; what is right and wrong.  I cannot say for certain what is absolutely good or just.  I don’t know the perfect way to respond in love to the brokenness of our earth that I, sadly, continue to contribute to.  But I glimpse a good way in the image of life immersed in community, continually stirred to action, prodded to wakefulness.  I feel buoyed by the perpetual promise of resurrection that assures me I can continue to pour myself out, to do what scares me to death, trusting in the assurance that I will be born again to life abundant.

 

 

An act of strange love: how I learned to stop worrying and defy the bomb

Guest Blogger, Amy Nee (part 1 of 2)

Monday morning, May 2, 2011, on a construction site outsideKansas City, fifty-three men and women stood in a makeshift circle–hands clasped, voices raised.  We were surrounding a truck with two wary workers inside. These men were momentarily delayed from their task of building a factory that will be used to create “non-nuclear” parts for nuclear weapons.  This factory is intended to replace and improve on the Honeywell plant already responsible for 85% of non-nuclear parts in theU.S.nuclear arsenal.  We intended to stop them.  

We were trespassing, and this is against the law.  Until a few years ago, I didn’t see much point in getting arrested or in “activism” in general. My association with Catholic Workers and others of that ilk however, has served to soften my criticism of civil disobedience and symbolic action. It has broadened my perspective and my appreciation for ways of being a pacifist without being passive.

“Every choice,” Thomas Aquinas writes, “is a renunciation.”  Active pursuit of just alternatives may mean active resistance to what has already, unjustly, been established.  Active obedience to the law of love may mean active disobedience to laws that protect destruction, segregation, violence, oppression. Reframing the concept of resistance to injustice from civil disobedience, to “gospel obedience” and asking questions like, “who/what am I being obedient to?” and “by what standard is this deemed correct?” is tremendously helpful in discerning whether or not an action is appropriate.  I believe in making a gift of my life, tuning my thoughts, words and actions toward harmony with God and neighbor and with this generous, forgiving earth; I believe in filling in the gaps created through accident or ignorance or active hate. Protesting, and demonstrating and risking arrest does not fill in the gaps, but I do hope it draws attention to them.  It is a way of saying, “I see this and I will not close my eyes to it, I will not accept it.”  I continue to remember and be influenced by words I heard spoken in prayer at the 2010 Midwest Catholic Worker Resistance Retreat, “We do not act this way because we are sure we are right.  We act this way because we are compelled by love.”  Ultimately, love is the fulfillment of the law and the light of living.

Still, I continue to feel an internal dissonance at the idea of acting in a way that to all appearances is soliciting arrest.  I am wary of allowing the prospect of making a statement by going to jail to become a flimsy focus that becomes the priority of an action.  These questions confront me: Am I entering the space of conflict, or creating a new one?  Is this act a relevant means to a relevant end or a means to relieve my conscience and to stroke my ego? Am I presenting an alternative or only defying what is present?  Thomas Merton writes, “nonviolent action must establish itself in the minds and memories of humankind# not only as conceivable and possible, but a desirable alternative [to force]…the temptation to get publicity and quick results by spectacular tricks or by forms of protest that are merely odd and provocative but whose human meaning is not clear may defeat this purpose.”

I find energy and truth in the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, and the salt marches of India’s liberation movement.  These actions seem so practical and relevant; almost obvious in their direct confrontation of laws so evidently unlawful and their intimate tie to the uplift of individuals and society.  It makes sense to me to do what I believe is right even if there is a law against it, but does it make sense to purposefully defy civil law?  The answer is not readily evident to me.  I find though that a direct response to a real need is not always accessible.  I cannot physically stand in the way of a bomb, nor can I put my body between the earth and the seeping chemicals contaminating it, or between a worker’s body and those same destructive elements.  I can bring my body to a site dedicated to manufacturing nuclear weapons.  I can get in the way of business as usual and let my little body—multiplied in size and force through union with those around it—speak a “no” to foolhardy, fear-based destruction.

The Catholic Workers and other peacemaker groups inKansas City follow a way reminiscent of Gandhi’s three-tiered approach of Constructive Programme, Noncooperation, and Spiritual Renewal.  Geographically and relationally rooted with neighbors their actions are not based on a theoretical idea of what is needed or what is right but a practical understanding and shared experience of the joys, sorrows, abundance and lack of those living in the city.  The stands they take are carefully consistent and relevant to the concerns of those they live amidst.  

They not only defy loveless laws but live by, and illuminate alternatives walking gently on the earth by living simply and sustainably, practicing the works of mercy, acknowledging our interconnectedness with God and others.  In the context of this community, I felt an unprecedented confidence as I acknowledged the responsibility of my own complicity and moved forward with the plan to confront our culture’s worship of “the bomb,” of strength through destruction, by interrupting work at the construction site. This was not an isolated action. It was the extension of a lifestyle, of an understanding that noncooperation extends beyond a day of protest and is integrated into daily life—by sharing resources, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, resisting war taxes—by integrating beliefs with being.

 I’ll leave you with these thoughts and continue to explain how I learned to stop worrying (and moved from contemplation to action that Monday morning) in  tomorrow’s blog entry.

Joy of fasting: recipes for Easter-living

Guest blogger Amy Nee

Easter came in singing, and the blossoming trees around town seem to confirm its promise of new life. Lent has come and gone and, along with it, our fasting obligations. As I face Ordinary Time and ordinary ways of living (if such a phrase can ever be applied to a Catholic Worker lifestyle), I am left wondering: what did we learn?

Going for forty-plus days abiding (admittedly imperfectly) by the commitments to go without cane sugar and sugar substitutes, to not bring new plastic into the house and to refrain from using electricity and other sources of energy on Sunday was not easy. But was it worthwhile? These three fasts may seem different to outsiders, but I found a unifying result binding together my experience of each.

Our fasts disabled “auto-pilot” – the everyday in-and-out I seem to be subject to, blindly doing things without thinking – and forced me into paying attention, preparing and being patient. As the practice of mindfulness developed and the excesses of convenience were diminished, my senses were refined so that I could hear the quietly-deep desires that are normally drowned out by the white noise of daily living.

I began to discover how foods full of sugar and corn syrup are disguised as a healthy choice (sometimes quite literally bearing that phrase on the label) through clever marketing and veiled language. While my cravings for easy options and sugary satisfaction wearied of the constant “no’s,” my body began to express its gratitude. With each little “no” I was making way for a larger “yes,” an affirmation of healthier, more just and often more creative choices that helped me make the connection between the food I eat, and where that food comes from, who works for it, and how it affects the quality of life for us all.

That creativity and conscientiousness came into play when shopping as well. Not only did I prepare physically, making sure to have a cloth bag on hand, I also prepared mentally, often not being able to buy what I wanted because chances were good that a shiny plastic film was between me and that item.

While browsing the cheese section of Whole Foods (after rummaging through its dumpster, of course), I found to my dismay that there was not one scrap of that dairy delight free of plastic wrapping. An employee, noting my long-lingering lack of selection approached. “Can I help you?” “I’m afraid not. Unless you have some cheese that isn’t in plastic?” “Oh. Hm, I don’t think we do.” “I didn’t think so. I am trying to reduce the use of plastic by not buying anything packaged with it. I really want to make a pizza, but if I bring plastic-wrapped cheese in the house I’ll be ostracized by my community.” “Mhm. Well, we can’t have that.” Being the savvy salesperson that he was, this young man did not submit to defeat. He came up with an alternative, “We have bulk cheese that doesn’t get put out. I could cut some off for you and wrap it in wax paper.” Beautiful! I would be hard pressed to think of a more satisfying purchase than that soggy slab of fresh, wax-wrapped, mozzarella.

Blocks of cheese

Going without plastic wasn’t easy, but the challenge was energizing and helped direct me toward a way of living more mindfully and responsibly on this beautiful, abused planet. Perhaps the most challenging and enriching aspect of the fast was our energy-free Sundays. The first Sunday morning was an education in unconscious habits—flicking on a light as soon as I walk in a room, checking my phone for the time, checking the computer for weather/correspondence/news—and a hitherto unnoticed dependence on the stove. What about coffee? What about oatmeal? I responded by forming a new habit of making preparations on Saturday.

One Saturday afternoon, in the process of boiling eggs and frying pancakes that would be eaten cold the next morning, it occurred to me that I was keeping the Sabbath in a more genuine way than I ever had before. So much of the work we do, and so many of the distractions I have, are based in technology. By removing that, not only did I have the opportunity to rest from work, but I was able to engage in activities that I often long for but relegate to the bottom of my list of priorities. I found myself reading more, practicing guitar, writing letters, spending time talking and – best of all singing with community members and friends.

I am tempted to cling to Lent, relying on the season and the Church and community to enforce discipline upon me. I am honestly more afraid of the riotous new life of Easter than I am of Good Friday’s tomb. The grave offers a quiet end, linen-wrapped like a newborn baby. The perpetual promise of resurrection presents an eternity of new days. And with each of those days, the choice; who will I be? How will I live? Do I go out for dinner or eat the mysterious leftovers in the fridge? It’s no wonder that the way Christ taught us to pray is for the things that give life one day at a time: God’s will, daily bread, forgiveness (for us and from us), relief from temptation, now and forever. And what is forever but an eternity of todays? Let’s start with the one we have, and live it well.

Amy’s post serves as a nice follow-up to guest blogger Jerica Arents introduction to this Lenten fasting.

Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/554400

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You (part two)

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part two of two (here’s part one)

I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace.  Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.

Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him.  Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.

My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.

How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire.  We are awestruck out of our element there.  It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown.  I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am.  But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life.  Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being.  Waking life requires it.