The myth of the self-made person and the true demand of discipleship

A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.

Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.

All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.

We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?

From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.

All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.”  It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.

For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.

This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.

So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “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. God’s ways are better than my ways.

Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.

Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.

And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.

Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:

“Understory”
by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.

Photo credit: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com

Headlines and prophets: a conversation

McDonald’s workers go on strike over sexual harassment 

“Yes, I’m on my  way to visit you with Judgement.

I’ll press compelling evidence against sorcerers, adulterers, liars,

those who exploit workers,

those who take advantage of widows and orphans,

those who are inhospitable to the homeless —

anyone and everyone who doesn’t honor me.”

In North Carolina, it’s the poorest who bear the brunt of flooding

“They’ll see that you take care of the poor,

that you take care of poor people in trouble,

provide a warm, dry place in bad weather,

provide a cool place when it’s hot.”

U.S. slashes the number of refugees it will allow into the country

“Attend to matters of justice.

Set things right between people.

Rescue victims from their exploiters.

Don’t take advantage of the homeless,

the orphans, the widows.

Stop the murdering!”

Violence displaces over 30,000 in northwest Syria this month: UN

“He’ll settle things fairly between nations.

He’ll make things right between many peoples.

They’ll turn their swords into shovels,

their spears into hoes.

No more will nation fight nation;

they won’t play war anymore.”

Photo credit: Unsplash photo by Rod Long

(Scripture passages are from The Message translation in order of appearance: Malachi 3:5, Isaiah 25:3,Jeremiah 22:3Isaiah 2:5)

An invitation

As we walk along, feet stir dust
and crack tiny twigs—once members
of a great tree they now lie as individuals
dismissed, forgotten.

The brightness of once-was is waning
as green fades into yellow and the decay
of vibrancy is apparent in the log, the stump,
the browning ferns drooping toward the ground.
The world is shifting in every direction.

An invitation opens on each side of the moment,
under the crunches of freshly decaying leaves,
in the whispers of opportunity.
Coming from beyond,
there is a chance for new unfolding.

What disturbances are broadening your knowing?
Toward what tunnel or cave are you being summoned?
What depth and darkness might you need to explore
in order to then walk more freely into new color,
into a brighter light?

The mystery summons you, needs you.
You are invited to be part of what is becoming.
Walk on.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Kneading Dough

The smell of bread baking wafts, stills her light
as she enters bouncing, screen door clanging.
              Show me, Grandma. I want to know.
For the next batch, she is held firm between
warm embrace and floured dough upon tan
table. She’s stunned by the flowing union
of grandma’s arms and shaking dough.
Punch into the metal bowl, there you go.
The holy is here in the expanding yeast,
in the building of love’s awed vitality.
Rising bread and growing girl, all glory
and praise is poured forth in the communion
of kneading dough.

(This poem was previously published as part of the essay “Franciscan Eucharistic people: living into our call” by Sister Sarah Hennessy in FSPA Presence magazine (July 2017) and in the November 16, 2017 issue of Superior Catholic Herald.)

franciscan-sisters-kneading-dough
Source: FreeImages.com

Have a blessed Feast of Corpus Christi, Messy Jesus Business readers! I hope you will join me in striving to honor the sacredness of every beloved body–human and otherwise–and the holiness of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament of bread and wine. Love, Sister Julia

Easter haikus

                    the ice drifted out
 fish, otter, loons released
 lake ripples broadly




green gradually
overcomes brown         building up
diversity's wisdom



awoke, rising, bold
every budding leaf shows how
justice demands change




love is feeding others
love is breakfast on the beach
love is going out





the boat moves over
horizons, maps, mystery
         the plain of blue water




the egg cracks open
     baby robin sings a song
yes to this new life




love is giving
     love. open. community.
love frees all to be


photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Love and ashes

our bodies make lines
and our hearts beat
repent, repent

make us more honest in
forty days
conversion time

prepare us, Mystery,
for an eternity
with you, true Love

create in us clean hearts
draw us closer–
Love, we are yours

You are our heartbeat
You are our way
help us fast, pray

lines of ash pressed into
our faces, worn with love
renewed, restored

the lines of time move
forward; we embrace
our destiny

death comes for us all
our graves are ahead
dust. ash. dust. ash

our bodies make lines
and our hearts beat
repent, repent

Credit: FreeImages.com

When disaster strikes, God remains

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Photo credit: businessinsider.com

 

The two narratives

twist together

when the waters churn

and the fears rise,

when the winds blow

and doubts intensify,

when the flames destroy

and homes burn to ash.

Every surrender surfaces

acts of courage and love.

Community is formed

around the cross of loss.

When suffering blinds us from

“trust in God” it is OK to scream

or cry or wonder if we’re being

ignored by the God of love,

to acknowledge the ache

of possible abandonment.

And in the still of the storm,

the heroes and the victims,

who are helpers and hurting

(all of us wear both badges)

make known the power of God’s

presence and the might of love.

This is our story of salvation,

this is the story of Incarnational

transformation. Although we are

frozen in fear, we arise to schlep

out junk. We splurge no more so

we can contribute more cash.

We grip arms as one

steadily moving forward

toward Sunday’s true joy.

Yes, by “love one another”

God remains real

in the midst of disaster.

Compass

i’d like a compass

with you at the north

and my sisters in the west

 

i’ll keep it in my pocket

and take it out for direction

when i can’t remember

the skin i’m in or

the rhythm of my own song

 

to the south are the mountains,

pink rhododendrons and sweet tea

 

and east

east is where the sun rises

and the Christ-light

finds me always

on the way home

 

 

sun-Mississippi
Sun on the Mississippi, by Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

 

 

 

About the Rabble Rouser:

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

Marked

 Most days, our schedules are clogged

with avoidance: We’d rather ignore

the inevitable smudge of human decay.

 

This morning though, Ash Wednesday,

we step into lines and confront

the truth of pain.

 

We allow strangers to mark us

with a message of paradox.

 

Remember, you are dust. To dust you will return.

 

Flecks of once joyous palms, now black grime

Color the firm skin of the young,

Fall into the creased skin of the old.

 

Repent and believe in the Gospel.

 

In somber silence we gaze at faces

that will all end up in the grave.

A unity emerges with fresh freedom.

 

Life after death.

 

Off to meetings, appointments, repentance or avoidance—

yet some will wear their marks with pride.

We all are moving in the same direction.

 

Photo credit: FreeImages.com
Photo credit: FreeImages.com

This complicated, imperfect world: a poem

child-Fall-leaves-path
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

 

 

This is a complicated world,

           but not for the sake of trying.

How do we respond?  What is it that I have done?

           Have I tried to lay in the long grass,

           to wake early and see my breath?

When did I last wait to hear,

Not answer, not voice, but a bird,

           the woodpecker’s sharp tap outside the bedroom window.

I don’t remember when I last walked in the rain

           to look up and see the downpour.

Am I afraid of getting wet, of tracking mud?

How quickly I forget my coat, a pair of boots

           Do I even remember where in the closet they are stored?

I must go out this next time.

I must remember that it is expected of me

           to not remain dry

           to track mud onto the floor boards.

It is expected that I do not remain a stoic philosopher forever.

Good reflection never came from sitting at the altar.

Unless I propose to be a monk,

           but even the monk must laugh

           and he does look up into the rain.

This is a complicated world

           but made less so because I am not a monk

           however much I would like to be.

And although not a religious

           I will still pray.

Perhaps I will even pray tonight.

Perhaps my words will carry hints of the sacred.

It is a sacred found in the ordinary;

           Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.

           Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect life.

And my feet have been introduced to mud,

           my hair drips rain.

Maybe I shall yet live

           or at the very least I will try.

 

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.