The jail we are all in

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/prison-1201356

I spend most of time going through life assuming that I am basically a good person who is OK with God. But, every now and then, I notice ugly thoughts jumble around inside me: Give them what they deserve! Or, Lock them up and throw away the key! Or, Thank God they’re not my problem to deal with!

Upon recognizing such thinking in myself there are two layers of horror and disgust. First, I am shocked by the awfulness and ugliness of the attitude, which is far from the Way of Christ. Second, I am terrified that such thoughts are authentically coming from me—a “good person.” When I realize that yes, I really thought that, it is an indicator that the structures of social sin really do have an influence over me—so much so that even my mind has shifted away from compassion and mercy.

Jesus, too, understood the ugliness of social sin and the way it can corrupt the thinking of good people. Challenged with the question “who is my neighbor?” his reply stretches his audience to widen their view:

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He  answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:29-37

The despised Samaritan becomes the “good guy,” the one who models how to practice the law of love, while the expected holy ones—the priest and scholar—miss the chance to serve. The false, deeply engrained perceptions are challenged so that the Kingdom of God can break through.

All these centuries later and across the globe, it turns out that wrong thinking has influence over our societal structures as well. Compared to other nations, the people in the United States demand more punishment for crimes; we want to be tough, not merciful. This insistence means that the for-profit private detention industry is booming. Plus, we greatly surpass every other nation for the amount of people we have put behind bars. Even though our nation has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA!

The people behind these bars are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors who Jesus calls us to love. They are the broken body of Christ in need of mercy and kindness. They are fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters. Our sin tears parents from children. Our wrong thinking—focused more on punishment than mercy—is festering wounds in families, neighborhoods and cities.

The good news is that we do not need to get stuck; no keys are really thrown away. We can repent for the sin of our wrong-thinking and continued allowance of bad public policy.

Let us give God our broken hearts and broken systems. Let us grow closer to Christ upon the Christ, bearing our wounds and sorrow. Such an intimacy with Christ can transform the prisons of our wrong thinking and create new hearts within us. The Kingdom of God shall break forth, the prisoner shall be released, and we all will be liberated from the damage of social sin.

Changed by God, we will then be able to rejoice and announce the good news: freedom and forgiveness for all, the day of favor has arrived!

From stone to flesh

“Heart of Stone” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter’s snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.

Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don’t realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

How the Holy Spirit moves us outward, across enemy lines

 

The Holy Spirit is coming! The Holy Spirit!!

Photo credit: http://www.catholicplayground.com/diy-holy-spirit-stained-glass/

Easter has ended. Jesus ascended. The power of Pentecost is nearly here. (We’ll celebrate this feast on Sunday.) What sort of wildness is unleashed into the world by way of these turns in the liturgical calendar? How has the energy transformed us and made us more into the people God has called us to be?

I don’t know. I think we each ought to pray and reflect on this individually and communally and come to our own conclusions.

Yet, I believe in the potential—power is active in the world for we’ve all been connected and created anew by the truth that evil, death and ugliness don’t get to have the last word. Hope, love, resurrection, and peacemaking remain the strongest forces in our lives, in our world.

The Holy Spirit can show up each day (no matter the liturgical phase we are in) and blow where She will, energizing and enlivening us with grace. We realize that if we empty and open ourselves to mystery and wonder the Spirit can blow through us and make music. We become instruments of mercy, peace, hope and love in the hurting world.

We are transformed by God’s activity in us. And our “yes” helps transform the world.

Listening to the news each day continually reminds me that the greatest transformation the world  so desperately needs is the construction of unity, the building of bridges over the canyons of divisions. I believe God wants us all to participate in the bringing together of divided peoples.

With our cooperation the power of God is wild and fierce; the Holy Spirit can’t be contained. We abandon our fears, judgments and assumptions. We reach outward to our enemies and realize that they can be our friends. Mercy makes us free.

So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. ~ James 2:12-13

How does this happen? How does the Holy Spirit move us outward and across enemy lines? What is required of us for this to happen?

Certainly, it starts with prayer. The sort of self-emptying surrender that Jesus modeled for us and demonstrated on the cross. The sort of communion with Christ that opens up spaces where we can hear whispers of guidance from God. The widening of our hearts and minds to make space for thinking beyond categories and the edges of boxes.

Then, we are compelled to consider who it is that we think of as “other,” as unlike ourselves. Who and what do we despise and how can become curious about them?

Then, we move toward them. We trust the Spirit to provide the courage and compassion we need. We enter into their world and try to hear their perspective with a great, loving curiosity. All this from a grounded place of playfulness, of child-like love that assumes everyone is good.

As Courtney E. Martin writes:

In some ways, it’s incredibly complicated to have worthwhile conversations about things you care deeply about with people who disagree with you … Part of why we don’t engage in conversations with people who have different belief systems from our own is because we don’t have the emotional energy. Our lives exhaust us. We’re too busy and too frustrated. It feels better to bond with people we know agree with us than to wade into the unknown waters of a psyche that might anger us. It takes real effort and emotional sturdiness to assume genuineness in someone you perceive as “the other.” It takes a resilient naïveté. Sometimes, it even takes a kind of playfulness.

(Read her entire essay “To be Surprised by Your Enemies, Stay Sturdy and Playful.“)

Lastly, if the Spirit is to use as an instrument in this way, we must be willing to change, to compromise. We find common ground and then build new things together in that solid place. This video, which I love, demonstrates it very, very well:

Come Holy Spirit! Make us into instruments of your love!! AMEN!

Veni, Sancte Spiritus

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen.
Alleluia.

 

Following Jesus outside the box

Since I was a kid, good folks started challenging me to think “outside the box.”

In one case, I remember sitting in the shade on a hot day with a group of girls at Bible camp and our counselor offering a puzzle: I am going on picnic and bringing cookies and my glasses. What are you bringing? Can I bring chips? No, no chips on this picnic … The puzzle would continue all week until all of us in the group figured out that it wasn’t about objects or colors or any other typical category that defined what we could bring: we could only bring words that had double letters.

Now, decades later, I understand that playing such a game at Bible camp was not just a time-filler, not just a way to keep a bunch of girls out trouble. Rather, such puzzles were brilliant opportunities to introduce me and my peers to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship: following Jesus’ demands that we think differently.

“We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to “think outside the box” regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don’t always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it.”  ~ Linda L. Clader, Voicing the Vision.

Here’s a bit about the boxes that get in the way of following Christ.

box-freeimages.com
Image courtesy freeimages.com

In the Kingdom of God there are no enemies because we’ve loved them all into our friends. Death and division don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to pick a political party, wear the latest fashion or obsess over petty things. We don’t have to choose a side or declare right or wrong.

In the Kingdom of God we get to be compassionate, nonjudgmental folks and rebel against the crowds of judgmental people by loving everyone. We get to listen and love and see the good in everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done. We don’t have to fight back or run away when oppression or violence comes toward us; rather, we get to stand up for justice and peace with creativity and compassion.

To be free of these boxes means that we can let go of anything that blocks our imaginations from dreaming up a world where all human dignity is honored and protected, where peace and justice are abundant for every creature, where heaven is known and experienced in this world. To be free of these boxes means that nothing can contain the ways we work for Christ. There are no limits to how we offer mercy, kindness, forgiveness and love. There are no expectations either, for when we allow God’s power to work through us, we can be surprised again and again by what wonders can occur, how goodness can be triumphant.

May the Spirit of God help us escape the box of either/or and give us the grace we need to be active in the energy of both/and—all in the space where we see that every person (Yes, even that person!) is a sinner and a saint, where all of us are works in progress in need of God’s grace.

Then we shall be freed from the limits of our human understanding and imagination. Then we can follow the ways of Christ’s love and can live in joyful awe of God’s work in the world!

 

I Walked into Suffering on the Road to Santiago

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”

The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.

For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.

The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that…  [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Pilgrims going into Santiago
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Redefining faith on El Camino

Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?

Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.

And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.

But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.

I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Holy Week is here

Here we are!

The Lenten journey is ending and it is time to emerge from the desert and enter into the Paschal mystery.

Holy Week has arrived! Here’s a quick background on these sacred days in the Church year:

 

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

For your prayer and mediation this week, I’d like to share with you a couple of poems written by a fellow Franciscan and my friend, Br. David Hirt:

Bethany

(For Monday of Holy Week)

You came into our life on feet
like dusty heartbeats, beating bare,
your human heart out-pouring love
and life for one whom even death
itself could not keep back from you.
And I have nothing worth your gift;
incomp’rable, to place into
your hands but my most costly thing;
a poor excuse compared with All.
This earthen vessel, feminine,
I break before your dusty feet
and pour its oil, perfumed and rich,
to cleanse the dust from calloused toes
and wipe them, intimate, with hair
that just a spouse should see and fear
I intimate your death. This gift,
this chrism meant for you alone
lifts up its heady scent and fills
this house like prayer, confirming dust
with sanctity and all because
you came into my life on feet
like dusty heartbeats beating bare.

 

 

“water into wonder” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Upside Down

(A Poem for Holy Thursday)

And everything is upside down,
like faces mirrored in a bowl:
an earthen vessel, roughly formed,
that’s full of water while the one
who once was robed, incomp’rable,
in light removes his outer robe
to tie a tow’l, a servant’s garb,
around his waist and stoops to wash
his foll’wer’s feet of traces from
the dusty Roman roads they’ve walked.
Yes everything is upside down
for whom in all this world would like
to think that him whose praise we sang,
“Hosanna to King David’s son,”
should stoop to take a servant’s part.
Oh we would rather he should reign
on high with us at his right hand.
But Servant Lord, incomp’rable,
you call us to remove our pride,
an outer robe, and stoop to wash
all others’ feet: humility,
and thrust down deep our dusty feet —
to take the love you offer us —
into the bowl reflecting you.

 

Read the rest of  Friar David’s poems for Holy Week here

“look up to the cross” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Holy One, Open me to your mystery during these sacred days. Change me and renew me, so I may enter into the Easter season prepared to celebrate and proclaim your Good News with my life. Amen.

 

The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

broken-cup-by-Julia-Walsh
Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Celibate Living in a Sex-Obsessed Society

Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.

Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?

My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The MudroomContinue reading here.]