An Advent song for our age

Credit: http://sacredspace102.blogspot.com/

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”Luke 1:41-44

Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!

Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.

Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.

No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age

to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,

dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones

but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;

the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

 

I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Truly-Our-Sister-Theology-Communion/dp/0826418279

For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.[1]

With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.[2]

Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”[3]

Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.[4]

Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty.[5] Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity.[6] I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.

Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.

By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.[7]

Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.

As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!

AMEN!

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.

[2] Johnson, 264-265.

[3] Johnson, 269.

[4] Johnson, 271.

[5] Johnson, 269.

[6] Johnson, 270.

[7] Johnson, 267.

 

Franciscan Bookshelf: “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are”

By Messy Jesus Business guest blogger K.P.

Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle.”– Ann Voskamp

51lWAOBT9rL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_The concept of eucharisteo, as Ann Voskamp explains in One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, is a practiced and disciplined form of perpetual adoration: a choice to thank God in every season, every action, every moment. As she describes in this interview with The High Calling, it is “the word that can change everything”: thanksgiving, which “envelopes the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Last week, I made my covenant affiliation to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and participated in the program’s live-in for five days prior to that ceremony. On Wednesday morning we were visited by two sisters who spoke passionately about perpetual adoration. I confess that, prior to the live-in, I found perpetual adoration to be the most mystifying and distant aspect of my community’s charism. I have sat in the perpetual adoration chapel many, many times, and I’ve experienced peace; I’ve prayed and felt the effects of my prayers; I’ve left prayer requests for others. And I felt that I understood—intellectually—the significance of perpetual adoration and the way it has marked the history and experience of the FSPAs in La Crosse, Wisconsin. But I did not fully understand this ministry and its immediate application to my life. I was grateful that others dedicated their time to adoring the monstrance—not just FSPAs, but countless affiliates, prayer partners and occasional visitors. But I did not understand how or why I should make this a regular, meaningful part of my own spiritual journey.

One of the sisters that morning spoke fervently of perpetual adoration as a form of being prayerfully active in the world, and I recalled immediately Voskamp’s own word for such a practice, eucharisteo. Voskamp’s text is meaningful to me because I credit her book—and my dog-eared, much-loved copy—for introducing me to the power of the everyday spiritual practice. It was after I read One Thousand Gifts that I began to explore lay orders and other spiritual communities and disciplines; it was after I watched interview after interview with Voskamp that I began to recognize and appreciate mundane holiness and the need for loving presence in every moment. One Thousand Gifts helped me understand that I would be remembered for how I loved, how I brought peace—not for what I owned or accomplished. In this way, I would place Voskamp in powerful company: her book was as quietly revolutionary, for me, as was Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and the work of Richard Rohr. Her revolution is a whisper. A silent, persistent prayer of gratitude. A microaction, prompted by a profound call to her own version of perpetual adoration.

And so, even though Voskamp is not Catholic nor is she Franciscan (though I believe that, as we say, she has a “Franciscan heart”), her word eucharisteo remains with me as I begin my new journey as an affiliate of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.

Franciscan Bookshelf: “Following Francis”

By day, K.P.–a good friend of Sister Julia’s–reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

Like most of the books on my Franciscan Bookshelf, I don’t know exactly how I came across “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone,” Susan Pitchford’s readable but rigorous introduction to the practice of lay Franciscan spirituality, but it is now one of my most dog-eared, deeply-cherished books about faith. Perhaps this is somewhat owing to the way Pitchford’s story resonates with me, particularly: an academic sociologist who describes herself as “scratch[ing] and claw[ing]” her way back to Christianity, Pitchford wrestles throughout the book with how to reconcile her secular vocation with the countercultural demands of her faith, in chapters that detail the aspects of her Rule, including “Prayer,” “Penitence,” “Love,” and “Simplicity.” Now fully immersed in the Anglican Third Order, Pitchford weaves her own (often endearingly clumsy) introduction to the Franciscan way into powerful narratives about the value of simplicity and prayer, the need for radical love, and the pursuit of meaningful work using the life of St. Francis as a guide. Pitchford’s introduction to the “Way” is—by turns—difficult, beautiful, accessible, and nourishing.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356

On the topic of “Self-Denial,” Pitchford is particularly insightful. Building on Kathleen Norris’s insight in “The Cloister Walk” that “the saints are those who have been willing to go through life without anesthesia,” Pitchford examines the many ways in which we have become accustomed to “anesthetizing” ourselves in modern Western culture: drugs, alcohol, greasy food, cigarettes, to be sure, but also music, movies, shopping, television. By rightly recognizing that the practice of self-denial is often counter-intuitive—if not seemingly irrelevant—to lay religious, Pitchford gently encourages those interested in such a discipline to meaningfully cultivate time and attention for the entertainments which bring us profound pleasure rather than transforming them into background noise. (As she puts it, “I figure if the music is good, it deserves my full attention; if not, it deserves to be turned off.”) Far from lamenting the deprivations of a good life, Pitchford humbly suggests a different version of it: a life filled with the kind of joy and peace that only gratified silence and cultivated attention can bring. And, of course, the occasional, profoundly-felt chocolate bar.

“Following Francis” also speaks to the challenges lay religious face in coordinating the disciplines of their spiritual life with the demands of their secular one. In chapters on “Humility,” “Study,” and “Work,” Pitchford addresses the intersection of meekness and practicing obedience in the context of meaningful employment. The modern workplace is often both competitive and self-aggrandizing, which can feel at odds to those called to lifestyles of solitude, humility, and voluntary simplicity. And yet, Pitchford reminds us, the reconciling of the two can produce powerful opportunities to witness and minister. She (rather comically) describes her search for meaningful ministry as an experience of discouraged unemployment, where everything she understands to be a “legitimate calling” is ultimately closed off to her. Yet she neglects to recognize that, all along, she has continued to write, teach, research, and touch lives. As she describes her realization, “Prayer, teaching, and writing: could this be a life that would be genuinely pleasing to God?” I think those of us called to a more contemplative life can agree that it sometimes feels … indulgent? Irrelevant? I myself have struggled deeply with my vocation as a professor: shouldn’t I be out feeding the homeless? Couldn’t I dedicate my hours to something more meaningful than reading and writing? Yet God has responded, again and again—through spiritual directors, through prayer, through books like Pitchford’s—by reminding me that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and to fostering truth and knowledge in other, more resistant minds, is a vocation in and of itself. Not a better or worse vocation, but simply the shape of my specific and particular call at this moment in my life. And thus I find helpful and comforting Pitchford’s emphasis on the need for self-reflection in order to understand secular vocations in discerning terms, to recognize the limits of our knowing:

… I think humans have a natural apophatic tendency—an intuitive sense of the limits of knowledge—and serious study can bring it to the surface. Apophatic theology claims that God is so far beyond human experience and understanding that all positive assertions about God’s essence are inevitably misleading, distorting, and potentially idolatrous. Instead of making statements about what God is (the thrust of “cataphatic” theology), apophatic theology emphasizes all that God is not: God is not limited (“infinite”), not subject to death and decay (“immortal”), beyond all description (“ineffable”). Because God so transcends our capacity to know him, apophatic theology stresses unknowing: we can do nothing but bow in silent awe before the mystery we cannot begin to comprehend. I confess I’m more at home in the cataphatic tradition, with heavy doses of analogy (“God is like a king,” “Christ is like a bridegroom”). Yet there’s that undeniable tendency for each little summit I reach to open up new vistas of my ignorance. This makes sense, because it’s only when we push ourselves to the limits of our knowledge that we get a feel for what those limits are.

I feel grateful every day to do meaningful work that pushes me, again and again, to the limits of my knowledge. May Pitchford’s work speak to you as it has to me: a grounded narrative of the transformations that the Franciscan way can bring to your life, work, and prayer.

 

closets of conversion and compassion

Last summer I was invited to join a group of Christian bloggers who occasionally review Christian media.  After I agreed, opportunities came!  The first book that intrigued me is a story of radical solidarity, compassion and good ol’ fashioned Christian conversion, The Cross in the Closet by Timothy Kurek.

The following video nicely introduces you to the writer and the book’s premise. Prior to the start of his year-long experiment, Kurek was a self-named Christian bigot. He was upraised in a very conservative community- so conservative that he wasn’t even allowed to watch movies such as Free Willy, because it was considered “environmentalist propaganda.” He becomes troubled by his background and then pretends to be someone he isn’t for an entire year (in order to free himself from who he calls his Inner Pharisee). The outcomes are many, and profound. Ultimately, he learns universal Truths about love and dignity that we can all heed.

A modern rendition of St. Francis and the leper, The Cross in the Closet is a Christian story of encountering Christ in unexpected places, and then being changed by the experience. I was inspired by Kurek’s raw honesty and public vulnerability. The book is a touching story of how a genuine Christian faith is a journey through questions and doubts, spiritual poverty, conversion and gradual enlightenment toward Truth and freedom. Yes, all people, no matter their diversity, are children of God with equal value and worth. This Truth of Christ must be the foundation of all of our Christian behavior. For some of us, though, we must truly risk boldly in order to understand it, in order to believe it. That’s what makes this true story so compelling.

I believe that all readers will relate to The Cross in the Closet. Its meaning and message are both broader than communion with a marginalized population; its value is greater than education about diversity. Rather, The Cross in the Closet speaks volumes about the freedom that is gifted us when we seek God on the margins, when we strip ourselves of pride, anger, hate, fear and all that can block us from union with God as we step into the unknown.

Really, I think that the strength of the book is its universal messages. Following God can flip everything in our lives upside down. Kurek explained: “…the [new label] has forced me to think more deeply about things I probably never would have otherwise. . . But at least I am finally open to the idea that I may have been wrong all along…” (82). Actually, even if it’s not an outcome of intentional discipleship, enculturation causes one to consider what they never had to before.

Although I enjoyed reading this book and found its messages profound, The Cross in the Closet wasn’t an example of great writing for me to aspire. Apparently, the book was written while Kurek went through the experiment. His personal growth is paralleled with his development as a writer. In the beginning, some details were too random and insignificant to be included (so what if so-and-so just came out of the bathroom!?), many of the metaphors were confusing, and much of the writing lacked creativity or beauty. Even toward the end of the book, occasional grammar mistakes and bizarre typing errors provoked a feeling similar to reading essays written by my high school students. For example, I had an urge to mark the text with my colored pens when I read “she walks passed our table” instead of “past our table” (p. 267). I was left wondering whether the fact that books can be published with such mistakes should be reassuring or appalling to me, another imperfect writer.

Even so, The Cross in the Closet is an engaging and important book, thick with relatable threads for both Christians and secular seekers. Kurek’s story inspires us all to remember that we are all on a journey together, and we all must be willing to risk boldly in order to truly know who we are and how we are to be in this world of beautiful diversity. His story and its colorful strands of authenticity, friendship, love, faith, conversion, solidarity, and compassion is a blessing to us all.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.