About four years ago, before any of us had been encouraged to practice social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic, I moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. My family and friends worried I’d be lonely, but I embraced the peace and quiet and found myself feeling very happy among the trees and lakes. It didn’t take long for me to make friends among my fellow Franciscan sisters, to feel like I was part of a community. About once a month, I drove half the day to visit friends in other parts of the state. Occasionally I would fly to meetings in places like California and South Carolina. I even got in good enough shape to walk the Camino de Compostela in Spain. Plus, social media allowed me to grow and deepen my relationships with many people online.
Overall, my time in the Northwoods was fruitful for me. I wrote a book and completed a master’s degree, all while benefiting from natural beauty and fresh air.
For my master’s project, I researched the problem of loneliness and developed some pastoral responses. What I learned was alarming… [This is the beginning of an essay I recently published in The Christian Century. Continue reading here.]
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?
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.
My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).
Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.
My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.
All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.
There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.
Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?
I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.
For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.
Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.
“Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL
I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.
“Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”
I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey 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, singing 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 Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.
Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …” (Mark 8:1-3)
Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.
By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.
I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?
The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.
Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).
And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.
So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.
It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.
Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?
My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.
Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?
I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”
My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.
I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.
“With five brothers,” began my dad, telling the familiar story to my niece and nephew, “your Great-aunt Kathy was always getting her food stolen. Her spot was right next to your great-grandfather, who used to tease her. Every night at dinner, your Aunt Kathy would huddle over her plate, with her fork ready to stab anyone’s hand that came near her food. My dad would slowly creep his fork over to Aunt Kathy’s plate when he thought she wasn’t looking. Oh, she would get so mad! ” He imitated my aunt huddling over her food for dramatic effect. My niece and nephew giggled when they heard this story for the first time. “We always ate ’till all the food was gone,” he remembered, smiling. “There were never any leftovers at Thanksgiving!” he finished. My mother chimed in with another familiar part of the story. “The first time I went to your great-grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving I swear, it was like watching a plague of locusts devour the food,” she remembered.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that story, but my dad’s imitation of my Aunt Kathy always makes me laugh. I love this part of the holiday; the family stories and familiar anecdotes, trying to one up each other to see who can make everyone laugh the hardest. I feel so safe and connected to my family during these storytelling sessions. We create connections and community together. This is the heart of both the Thanksgiving holiday and the Eucharist — community. Loved ones gather at the table to share food, memories, and of course, family stories. Like life in my religious and church community, it can be both joyous and complicated.
I imagine that the Last Supper with Jesus was, in many ways, not unlike many Thanksgiving holidays. I’m certain there was a tremendous hustle and bustle of making plans for travel and preparations for the meal itself. Where would they eat? Who would prepare the food? Who was invited? Also like many Thanksgivings I have experienced, once the festivities began, there must have been both joy in being together, a sharing of memories, prayer and, definitely, disagreements.
One of the best things for me about Thanksgiving is the intergenerational sharing. I delight in watching my nieces and nephews as we gather around our Thanksgiving table each year. Since I am no chef, I often have the responsibility of keeping the children in my family occupied as the others take over the kitchen to prepare the feast. This year will be the first time my six-month-old great-nephew will join us. (How am I even old enough to have a great-nephew?) I am so excited to be able see Thanksgiving through his eyes.
Slowly but surely, little by little, responsibility for Thanksgiving has shifted to my generation. My earliest Thanksgivings were put on by my grandparents. We used to switch off and on from my mother’s parents to my father’s mother’s house. Eventually, my parents’ generation took over hosting duties. Now, my siblings take charge. It wasn’t without tension or disagreements. My parents had to slowly let go of some of the things they used to do; how they prepared the food, what was served, and so on. This was especially hard for my father, who delights in cooking. Over the years, circumstances just made it easier for my brother or my sister to host the meal.
It can be difficult to avoid conflict with family members during holidays. Sometimes the conflict is as simple as expectations for helping in the kitchen, or an unkind word or two. Others are more deep-seeded such as those driven by grief, broken relationships or politics. It can take a great deal of patience, forgiveness and humility to navigate these relationships, especially in a family of stubborn, hot-headed Irish-American Catholics! This is true of disagreements in our church family as well. Patience, forgiveness and humility are key in healing the great divisions.
Loss can also take on more significant meaning during the holidays. We mourn those who are no longer with us. We miss their presence. This is my best friend’s first Thanksgiving since her mother passed six months ago. “It just won’t be the same without Mom. I can’t do everything she used to,” she’s lamented to me. My heart feels for her. All I can do is offer my support, and assure her that her mother would be proud of the effort she and her siblings make this year. I wonder what that next Passover, the year after Jesus died, was like for the remaining apostles. (It would seem that they were scattered over the Middle East and Europe.)
One thing that we do know for sure: they told the story to the first Christians. The significance of that Passover has been handed on to us from them, and has become the centerpiece around which the Christian community gathers.
Isn’t that the heart of Eucharist? A handing down of the story of our salvation, a meal shared in memory of the one who loved us even to his death on the cross? And isn’t that the heart of what we do at Thanksgiving? Share a meal and our life stories together? It’s how we come to know each other as individuals and as family. It’s how we pass on the values that are important to us to the younger generation. It’s how we remember those who have left us. The story connects and bonds us. This Thanksgiving, I hope to focus on listening to the stories of the lives of those I love, and sharing my life story with them.
Sister Shannon Fox
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
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:
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.
I have been praying to St. Joe, the earthly father of Jesus, a lot lately.
I call him St. Joeinstead of St. Josephbecause shortening his name makes him more real to me, like a friend. When I pray to saints it is helpful for me to behave like we are in relationship; change occurs on a relational level.
I am a single, 27-year-old female who is not trying to sell a home or become a carpenter. Although I have little in common with St. Joe, we have been having a lot of chats.
I am a nanny by trade and the majority of my week is spent loving and taking care of other people’s children. I educate, wash the clothes and change the diapers of little ones.
St. Joe is my friend through all of this labor because, when it comes to loving the children of others, I am pretty sure there is no one better to model my heart after. I am often tired and drained in this work. The words I say seem to bounce right off the back of the energetic four-year old. Frustrated again and again, I turn to St. Joe:
“Please help me to love this child like you love Jesus.
Help me to not get caught up in the frustrations of the day-to-day.”
This simple prayer calms and encourages me to think more deeply about the dynamics of the Holy Family. I find myself wondering, just as I do about myself, if St. Joseph knew how difficult raising a child would be, if he ever doubted that what he was doing mattered and if the love he provided was enough.
While teaching children as a nanny, I am learning too. It shows me that loving people is messy and imperfect, that God gives us the saints to encourage us and to help us strive for holiness. They are given as gifts because God loves us so infinitely and provides examples of people just like us who have become saints. Similarly, as I explore and deepen my faith Jesus’ lessons on loving children, especially as a non-biological parent like St. Joe, inspire me.
And the more I talk to St. Joe about caring for children not our own, I realize we have even more in common. I am loved very deeply by a stepparent. As I look at the role St. Joseph plays in the life of Jesus and the role my own stepmom plays in mine, I realize that by taking on the responsibilities of loving another’s child we open our hearts to being conductors of the spiritual works of mercy. We embrace all seven of them: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.
I know that, throughout her marriage to my dad, my stepmom has and continues to do all of this for me and my brothers. I suspect that St. Joe would have also practiced these works of mercy with Jesus. I imagine that there were times when St. Joe prayed to be better at these things, just like I do.
So what do I, a single 27-year-old non-homeowner and non-carpenter have in common? Love. Lots and lots of love by the will of God, mercy. I know I need it, and I know I can grow by practicing it.
Thanks for the example, St. Joe.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.
He said to them … “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’;and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.” – Matthew 16:2-4
Much of the world we once knew is flipping onto its side. People in power are causing us to have questions about what we thought were foundational values, about where their loyalties lie. When our leaders disturb the order that we once relied on — that once made us comfortable — it’s only natural for us to feel lost, confused and uncertain about how to interpret the chipping and shifting road signs.
If we haven’t learned the codes and the languages, the meaning of the signs, we may feel as if we’re traveling through the fog. We grip our steering wheels a little tighter. We pull to the side and put on our flashers, trying to gain some sort of sense about whether we are going in the right direction, trying to determine which routes — and on and off ramps — are part of the Way of Christ.
As we travel, as we follow Jesus, folks reach out to us from every direction, in need of our compassion, care, and prayer. Their worlds are crumbling. In the rubble, they feel unsteady. They are challenged by change, by death, by the demand to transform and adjust — the call to conversion for which they were unprepared.
Our call is to listen to their cries, to hold them close in the way of our example, Jesus Christ. We hear their heartaches and their longings for solid ground. We encourage faithfulness to God’s love, to the demands of relating beyond break downs and upsets to the status quo. And we try to find our own solid footing, as we love over the divides and disturbances.
One way to stay grounded when the signs seem to point toward the land of letting go, to transformation and conversion, is checking our own memories and loyalties.
For myself recently, I’ve been invited to this through the sudden departure of a colleague, mentor and a holy man, Mr. Steven Murray, who I was honored to minister with at Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a few years ago. Earlier this month he died while mowing his lawn, leaving a giant gap in the hearts of many, as he served hundreds of people over the years as a compassionate educator. When I worked with Mr. Murray at the high school, he was the dean of students and we often would get into deep, faith-filled conversations about how to care for the teenager who doesn’t seem to care about school or others; we would grapple with the messy Jesus business of Gospel living together and always arrived at the same conclusion: we must imitate our brother Jesus, whose love was costly and full of second chances.
In my memories of Steve the signposts become clear. It is apparent where his loyalty was. It was clear what he wanted to most remember: the love of Christ. He would share this love of Christ in meaningful yet subtle ways, gently teaching how one’s dedication and devotion can inform one’s character and tone.
Loyalty is rootedness, devotion, connection. It is relational and grounded. It is based in memory of identity, in memory of fondness and hope, of memory of what values are foundational.
Influenced by loyalty and memory and built up by love, like Steve Murray, we can pay better attention to the signs surrounding us, we can gain direction and experience reflection. We can be grounded in love and truth.
Steve Murray published a song and a reflection online about his childhood friendship on the Mississippi River less than two weeks before he died. It seems, in this section, that he was paying attention to the sign of his mortality:
We had the utmost respect for the river and its power and even though we thought we were Tom and Huck, it did not take us away from our homes. We attended funerals but never our own. In those days it was not unusual to have the visitation in the front room of your house and the funeral procession would go from the church passed your house and then to the cemetery.
As we journey on this road of life with Christ, let us look around at all the people in our lives who are signs for us on how to love and live, to share and help others gain a sense of solid footing, even if their world is crumbling around them.
Like Steve Murray, let us be fed by the words of Jesus, as food for our journey to help us be awake and nourished enough to notice the signs.
For your prayer and nourishment, I offer this song “Words of Jesus” written and sung by Mr. Steven Murray. May it help you know the way. Amen!