This coming Sunday is one of my favorite feasts in the Church year: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is also known as the Feast of Christ the King.
On this feast I celebrate something I believe, deeply: from the macro of the cosmos to the micro of our hearts, the love of Christ prevails and has authority.
We ponder the messiness of the Kingdom of God — which is now and not yet — in this blog. God’s reign of peace and justice was established by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it’s close at hand and not yet fully known. It’s the basis for living the Gospel, for advocating for peace, justice, and mercy being triumphant, and working tirelessly to serve all in God’s creation, and for honoring the dignity of every person. (The Kingdom of God is such an important theme on this blog that you’ll find some party music for this celebration in the archives!) As we experience the messiness of Gospel living, the tension, struggle and conversion offered to us each day, building up the reign of God is what we’re up to.
Needless to say, I have a lot of passion for the Kingdom of God. Naturally then, I was thrilled to be invited to preach for this feast by an organization I appreciate and admire: Catholic Women Preach.
As I prayed and studied the readings for the feast, I noticed that I felt invited to shift my perspective over and over, to look at the Scripture passages from different points of view.
I ended up preaching all about how a change in perspective is needed in order to see that the Kingdom of God nearby.
I’d love to get your perspective: What gets in the way of seeing the Kingdom of God around you?
Gazing toward the brightly lit horizon the other day, I noticed an expansiveness, an opening. Beyond what I could see was a mystery. Bigger than the dances of shadows and light, the frozen November snow and the clouds hanging out their hues of pink and gray, was the power of possibility, the rise of potential.
Looking at that sky, I thought of the formations of birds I saw flying across wide open skies a few days prior. I had traveled in a car from one Midwestern city to another with my attention cycling between the other Franciscan sister near me, the wonders on the other side of the chilled glass and the condition of my own body and mind. Even though the drive was nearly a week ago, I still wonder about it. I wonder where the birds had come from and where they were going. I wonder how long it takes for them to travel their distance. I wonder if they feel exhausted. I wonder if, for them, the sky feels big.
In each moment — in each expanse — I notice that I am open to the possibilities, that I don’t have a narrow view. My mind is not made up. I am open to learning or discovering. I am open to the largeness of mystery. I feel small, and in the smallness I feel a freedom, a gladness.
And, I can see that this disposition is different from how I relate to people, myself included.
The Gospel demands that we love God, ourselves and our neighbors with all that we are. The nature of love, I am learning, is allowing the space for the other to develop. To be a mystery. To be surprised. Love lets people change and grow.
Even though there are people I’ve known for years and years, I need to resist the temptation to assume they’ll react a certain way to anything I say or do. I need to let go of expectations that they’ll be in a mood I’ve encountered before or behave how they have in the past. Although every person is allowed to live a life made of patterns and habits, it’s not my duty to subject them to any traps or predictions. I’ve realized how much I hate it when others typecast me. Why would I ever do that to anyone else?
Similarly, I am trying to free myself from traps of thinking about myself. I am learning that a way to love myself is to allow space to grow and change. This is actually part of self-acceptance, of giving God a chance to work out conversions in my mind, heart and actions. So what that I have struggled to be kind, or gentle, or punctual, or tidy in the past? Perhaps I will be surprised with ease this one time.
I am thrilled to have learned a new way to love myself and others. I am excited to discover that a grace that companions love is the freedom to learn and grown.
And, I wonder what sort of beauty I will see if I allow myself to gaze upon the mystery of each person with the same sort of openness I see in the sky?
The first person who taught me eucharistic theology was my Lutheran grandmother. Although I have no memories of her ever uttering the words “eucharistic” or “theology,” she taught me in the way that the best teachers do: by being a living example.
Grandma’s house usually smelled like freshly baked bread. Her counter was often dusted with a layer of flour and she frequently had dough under her fingernails. My grandma structured much of her time around a pattern of stirring, kneading, baking, cooking or serving meals and snacks. No matter who came through the sunny porch, she offered the person a warm hello and an embrace.
Nearly every day at noon, neighborhood kids (along with me, my siblings and cousins) and farmers and friends would squeeze around a large table, where there was always… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Perhaps you’re worried about loved ones impacted by the fires in California — or you are one of the millions of people struggling to make it without clean air, electricity or safety. Maybe you’ve lost your home.
Or you may be the person dealing with internal trial: health problems, financial challenges or splintered relationships. Maybe someone you love has recently died and the grief has you frozen in sorrow.
It could be that your Gospel living — your faithful walk with Christ — has you meeting roadblock after roadblock. Each detour and struggle has you feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere or making any progress. You are losing hope and confidence that you’re on the right path, that God wants you to proceed. You don’t know if you have any steam left in you for loving others.
No matter which circumstances have you carrying a cross, here’s what I want to assure you today: you are not alone. Jesus is with you in all of it. The community of Christ cares for you.
To boost you up and impart consolation, I’m offering some inspiration in the mess. Here’s some goodness that keeps me going.
I’ve heard a lot of people proclaim that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” which is a cliché I dislike, because it suggests that we (individually) must handle the hard times, the painful parts of living. But such a sentiment doesn’t match what I have come to know: we are strengthened by God and community, we all are in need of help and support.
Here’s a verse that agrees: only if we rely on God, if we turn to Christ, will we be able to handle what’s tough:
“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” — 1 Corinthians 10:13
Scripture reminds us that a paradox of the spiritual life (and discipleship, for that matter) is accepting hardships as part of the price we pay for growing closer to God; once we embrace our weakness, we’re able to know strength.
“Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Plus, Scripture assures us that God remains with us; God is the true source of our strength.
“I command you: be strong and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9
overwhelmed, I wonder/gazing out the window, I sigh …”
“As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry. Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond. The challenge is to respond with love.
On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament. I begged God for mercy. I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed. As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.
Soon after, I am with my students. I decide to be real with them. ‘I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets …'”
“You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person.”
“I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!
But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe.”
“When we serve others we touch the wounds of Christ; we encounter the heartache and pain of our neighbors. When we read the news headlines right alongside the promises of Christ, it can be tempting to doubt that the Incarnation really changed things and made the world better. Our consciousness about global oppression and the weight of natural disasters can be crushing, discouraging.
One way that I keep my eyes open to the Light is to tune into songs that feed me with encouragement and strength. I want to have music in my head that keeps me singing with hopeful joy. I want to dance to beats that help me persevere and trust that God’s in charge, that the fullness of God’s goodness is on its way.”
Plus, much of the music by Liz Vice boosts my spirit. Here’s one gem for you:
THE BIBLE, AGAIN
Praying with the Gospel stories and the lives of the saints could also offer you a lot of inspiration and encouragement.
This lovely prayer video, made by my friend Susan Francois, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, reminds us of the Gospel call to persist for peace and justice:
Lastly, this passage from Romans reminds us that much goodness is ahead:
Brothers and sisters: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.
Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.
I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).
At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.
I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.
What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.
And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.
The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.
Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.
It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.
The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.
For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.
There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.
The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.
For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.
The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ.
At my new home in Chicago, I can visit the shore of Lake Michigan, and I like to go there to pray. From my spot on a concrete slab, all that is visible to me that is “natural” is water and sky. Everything else — the concrete, the fence, the shoreline — has been constructed by humans, not God. Humans inflict change on everything they encounter. Watching the water roll around the boulders at my feet, I realize my creaturedom carries a contradiction: No matter my will, my body is always impactful; with my smallness comes a might. I have effects on landscapes and other creatures just through my being and my breath.
Later, I go to Mass, tucked into a chapel around a table I equate with love, mercy and transformation. It’s a truly Catholic community. We’re sisters, priests, and married and single people with many shades of skin. Some are from nations I’ll never really know (South Korea, Ireland, Zambia). A woman’s voice proclaims the Psalm:
Let this be written for the generation to come, and let his future creatures praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his holy height, from heaven he beheld the earth, To hear the groaning of the prisoners, to release those doomed to die.”
Centuries ago, before my religion found form, ancient words acknowledged us. The future creatures were… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
It was a bright June day when I heard a sister lament. The sister: she is named for light; we call her Lucy. At a community meeting, she stood at a podium and spoke into a microphone, her voice full of passion and frustration. She gave a State of the Union speech of sorts, yet in this case, the Union was the planet Earth.
As her exasperated voice vibrated through the room, images of pollution and charts of species decline glowed on bright screens. Her tone was intense, strong. Young and old, at least seven dozen Franciscan Sisters tried to hear the truth; we tried to love our sister, even though her message was tough to hear. Many of us squirmed uncomfortably as she, an ecologist and farmer, admitted that the picture of this planet is grim.
“I am finding it really hard to love homo sapiens right now!” she admitted while acknowledging that she is not free from playing a part in the environmental crisis either. “Earth would be better off without us. It could spit us off and have a better chance of surviving.”
I was reminded of Sister Lucy’s lament this week as I watched Greta Thunberg’s speech given to the United Nations. You can’t skip this video. Please watch it right now. Even if you’ve already watched it, watch it again.
Like Sister Lucy, Greta’s tone is appropriately intense and angry, for the State of the Earth is serious. “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Now, I can’t stop thinking about how to act, how to not fail children like Greta (she’s 16 years old!), how to not fail the Christian call to steward the gifts of creation. To not change our ways and care for the most vulnerable is evil, as she says. I feel challenged and shamed, in the best of ways. I feel compelled to truly repent and to change. To admit my sorrow and to grow.
It is time for repentance and conversion. All of humanity, rich and poor, privileged and marginalized, powerful and weak — we all must act if we want to save ourselves. We must change our hearts, our minds, our ways of living. We must change our behaviors and attitudes.
No matter what type of change we’re talking about, all change starts with a shift in perspective. It’s time for us to see that we’re not here to have dominion over any other life. Rather, our health and survival as a species are completely dependent on the health and survival of other species, on every ecosystem. We are completely interdependent on other life forms.
When Sister Lucy spoke to my community in June, I learned a new way to understand this. We are called to be ecocentric instead of egocentric. Our species is one among many. As other species become endangered and extinct, so could we. As the planet becomes healthy and balanced again, so will we.
We are not above any other species. Rather, we are part of the ecosystems and are totally dependent on other species. And the earth is suffering, and it’s very serious. I’ll save you the litany of horrors. (But you can read this article to learn the latest.)
The actions we take from here on out must be based on these facts. We must act with wild hope and faith that every person matters, that all of our actions have significance. We must trust that small acts contribute to the big picture. What is needed now are individual lifestyle changes and systemic changes. We must truly act locally and unite globally to change the political and economic systems that are oppressing our planet.
There are a lot of options, really. 101 things you can do to fight climate change are listed here. Here are a few that I’ve decided on.
Eat differently. For some, like myself, that’s becoming vegetarian. For others, it’s eating less meat, or wasting less overall. Others opt to grow one’s own food or buy from local farmers. All of us must do something, though. “We need a radical transformation — not incremental shifts — towards a global land-use and food system that serves our climate needs,” Ruth Richardson in Toronto, Canada, the executive director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, has declared. Clearly, it is essential we understand how global agriculture truly works and eat in ways that are more sustainable.
Travel less. This is the hard one for me because I tend to live a fairly itinerant Franciscan life. Yet, every time I calculate my carbon footprint, it is apparent to me that if I stop using planes and cars then I’d drastically reduce the harm I inflict on other species.
Stop purchasing bottled water and soft drinks. I like flavored and carbonated waters as much as the next person. But, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture water bottles every year. And, as it becomes more apparent that plastic recycling is mostly a myth, I am especially challenged to stop using all plastic. From now on, I will go nowhere without my refillable water bottle. It’s one simple thing I can do.
Join climate advocacy organizations, such as Oxfam,Greenpeace, or Catholic Climate Covenant. These organizations need your financial support and your participation. Join them in the advocacy events they organize in order to act for systemic change and help protect the planet and the poor. You can easily write your U.S. senator about supporting the International Climate Accountability Act (S.1743) here.
No matter how we respond to the prophetic laments of people like Sister Lucy and Greta Thunberg, let us act with love.
Our life depends upon it.
God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight. Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out. O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love, and beauty. Praise be to you! Amen. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí)
For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.
In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.
My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.
I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of, Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)
The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.
Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.
Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.
Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.
It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christand then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.
I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?
This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.
Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?
I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.
Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.
In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.
The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.
With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.
Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)
When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?
In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.
There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.
Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)
I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”
A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.
Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.
It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.
I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.
I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]