Poetry: How do words become flesh?

How do you pray?

Do you pray with hands folded?

Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they smell fresher, lighter?

Do you tell yourself stories of meaning and mystery? Do you let the metaphors dance in the shadows of your bedroom while you remember your past and invent your fate?

Do you pray in the silence? Do you pray with song? Do you pray on the busy streets?

Do you slice up your words and put them into a pot to simmer like stew until they become a nourishment thicker than alphabet soup?

Do you go through doors to places that are wordless, spaces where the only sound heard is the buzz of light warming you? Do you let words illumine you?

Do you pick up your pen and draw circles in your journal? Do you then color those circles in with lines and dreams, a blend of babbles and breath? Do you ask Spirit to help you to make sense of what comes from your imagination, from the cavern of your soul? Do you ask the Spirit to help you make sense of anything?

How do you pray?

Do you pray with poetry or psalms? Do you pray in your sleep? Do you pray under water?

Do you let the word take the shape of your fleshy, wrinkled, brain?

Do words tick in the territory of your heart? Are they fleshy like moving muscle, tightening and expanding and allowing for the flow of living blood?

Do you allow your womb to expand, for the Spirit to write beauty and truth through you?

Do you?

 

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

Adapted for 2019 Women’s Christmas at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center. An essay version of this poem first appeared on the Image blog Good Letters in December 2018 and was inspired in part by How Do You Write? by Richard Chess

Light in the dark

In the Northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, the day when we experience the least sunlight.

We’re still in the season of Advent, the season of longing and hope. Even if the preparations and Christmas celebrations of this season have had you feeling busy and stressed, you still have time to tune into God’s graces, to notice how God is working in your struggles and joys.

To help you lean toward the light, to trust in its coming, I now offer you the top five Advent reflections from Messy Jesus Business since this blog began over nine years ago.

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Image courtesy pixabay.com

Most wonderful time of the year

by Sister Rhonda Miska (December 14, 2018)

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.  (Read more) 

Pregnant with hope

by Amy Nee-Walker (December 12, 2011)

When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.

Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. (Read more.) 

Craving a countercultural Christmas

By Julia Walsh (November 27, 2013)

My Christmas Every Day experiment is starting to get awkward.

Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.

Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.

My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. (Read More)

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

By Rhonda Miska (December 12, 2016)

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? (Read More) 

Fear, darkness, and Advent

By Julia Walsh (December 15, 2016)

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today. (Read more)

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

May the Light of Christ transform you all, and give you great peace! Happy Solstice!

This Advent, may we make room

Photo credit: unsplash.com

Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.

In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

 

Advent: watchfulness, waiting and wanting

In Psalm 130, we are taught to pray: “ I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” When I pray this psalm, my imagination takes me to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean.  

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Psalm 130 by Janice Little

Many times in the past 15 years I have sat in the darkness of early morning on a sandy South Carolina beach, with the stars beaming above me, in anticipation of the sun’s imminent appearance above the horizon. With my eyes glued to the distant line that shows separation of sky and sea, I sip my coffee and breathe deeply. And I watch. And I wait. I begin to notice the sound of crashing waves, my breath expanding in my lungs, and the coolness of the sand on my feet. In this watchful waiting, I discover an enlargement.

My longing for the light and warmth and beauty of the sun increases with each passing minute. I yearn for the sun to come. I yearn to see that morning’s unique set of colors and twists and reflections on the water. My desire for the sunrise enlarges as I wait and watch.

I wonder if it is similar to our waiting and watching in Advent. Is there an enlargement that comes with the watchful waiting? As I set apart space and time to wait in hope, do I grow in eager anticipation for the main point God’s coming to us? In the midst of our usual December activities, the Advent season invites us to watchful practices like praying, reading Scripture, tending to the movements of our souls, confession, fasting, and silence. As we receive time for these and other practices that form us in alertness, our longing for the coming of Jesus is enlarged.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” 

The watchers for the morning in Psalm 130 could have been those keeping watch for enemies through the night and hoping for the reprieve of sunlight after their long hours of duty. They watch for the morning with a yearning for rest. These watchers could have also been those Levite priests assigned to initiate the day’s worship at the first sign of dawn. The ancient priests would watch for the morning with a yearning to worship. In both instances, it is desire that marks the waiting and watching. In watchful waiting we learn to want.  

We live in a world of marketing and technology that is intent on shaping our desires. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we are told to want particular friends, ways of life, accomplishments, academic degrees, kinds of knowledge, admiration, foods, bodies, phones, clothes and stuff … so much stuff. The objects of these desires seem limitless and often irrelevant. We are simply trained to want and to want and to want, often without hesitation or question or reflection on the what and the how and the why of that wanting. All this training is shepherded by storytellers advertisers, celebrities, YouTube influencers, politicians and market specialists. And yet, all the while, we might just think we are our own storytellers. That’s part of the nastiness of this web of a consumer world we think we are the creators of our own wants, the authors of our own stories.

Thank You, God, for Advent. Because the Christian vision of the world offers a question mark to all this unfiltered wanting. Our real desire finds its source and aim in God, and all other desires are to be ordered around worship and enjoyment of God the God who comes to us in Emmanuel. We are a people who proclaim God as our storyteller.  And, through the Holy Spirit, the divine story we discover and in which we participate is mediated to us in the Body of Jesus, the Church. In Advent, the Church invites us to watch and to wait for the coming of Jesus. And in this watchful waiting, our truest desire is kindled the desire for the God to whom we belong.

A couple years ago, we began a new breakout group devoted to encountering God and deepening in awareness of God’s wonder-filled, loving presence in our everyday lives at Reality Ministries on Thursdays. Our first meeting began right on target. Nathan Freshwater, our dear neighbor and friend, jumped in right away and said with his usual gusto, “The main point is not that we come to God … come on … the point is that God comes to us. That’s the main point. God comes to us.” YES. As we journey through Advent, may God grant us this vision of the faithfulness and promise of the main point God has come to us, God does come to us, God will come to us again.

In our watchfulness, we don’t bring forth anything that isn’t already at work, but rather we “cultivate the beauty given to us in grace” (a phrase from Maximus the Confessor). Watchfulness implies a slow, careful alertness. It is an attitude of attentiveness. Watchfulness opens us to see the rich radiance of divine grace. Watchfulness is the heart’s awakening to the reality of God. Advent is a season of cultivating this awakening a time to tend to and attend to God’s daily visitation in our lives. 

Through watchfulness, we enlarge our hospitality of God. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the one chosen to host our Lord, and in her physical body she showed the enlargement of a season of waiting. We don’t control God’s coming, but we make room for God’s coming to transform our entire beings our patterns, our ways of life, our relationships, our thoughts and our desires.

This Advent, we are beckoned to consider what we want. In our watchful waiting, the Holy Spirit re-forms our wanting and fixes our desire on the One in whom all of our deepest wants are satisfied.  

In Advent, as we wait and watch for the coming of Jesus, our desires are aligned more and more with the One who gives all good gifts. Certainly, the seasons in my life in which I have received the time to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus are those in which I have come to truly learn the desire of my heart that deep desire for God and God alone that is often masked by distracting wants. I can pray in truthful yearning, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-baby

Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

We need each other, not more consumption

Every year around this time, companies ramp up marketing campaigns that do their best to connect contentment with consumerism. Feeling lonely? Buy a candy cane latte. Feeling grief? Buy more holiday decorations. Feeling afraid and anxious as you watch the daily news in a world plagued by family separations, endless wars and mass shootings? Buy this year’s feel-good holiday movie.

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Original artwork by Annemarie Barrett

These solutions to our loneliness, sold on every corner of our commute, might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic — fixes so profoundly lacking in their shallow attempts to remedy the deep spiritual crisis that so many of us are experiencing in our so-called “developed” capitalist society.

For nearly seven of the past years, I have lived in Bolivia, South America, and formed community with Bolivian families and friends whose holiday traditions have yet to be consumed by a Western capitalist definition of Christmas.

Living in another culture has challenged me to reflect on the cultural traditions in my own, especially around the holiday season.

I know personally many Bolivian children who now expect a Christmas tree and presents from their parents because that is how they saw Christmas defined on TV. Though their families may have never before celebrated with a tree and material gifts, the pressure to conform to a traditional capitalist Christmas grows every year.

Unfortunately, what we often fail to recognize about the global push towards development under capitalism is that it also includes an increase in consumerism. As many of us in the so-called “developed” world work slowly to reduce our own consumption, large corporations are working at a much more accelerated pace to inspire more consumption in other parts of the world. But replicating our materialistic lifestyles on a global scale is simply a model our planet cannot sustain.

And now, as I think about how we got to where we are as a global community, I wonder: where has this constant push towards endless growth, development and consumerism brought us? Are we more generous? Are we more empathetic? Are we less lonely?

Do our cultural holiday traditions in affluent Catholic communities in the United States reflect the values that we hold? If not, why not? How might we transform them? How have we allowed capitalism to uproot our Christian values?

When I reflect back on my own experiences of exchanging gifts around Christmas time, what I value most about those memories was the opportunity to know and be known.

Isn’t that what we all really want, to feel known and to know that we are not alone? When we experience the excitement of unwrapping a present, aren’t we really hoping to unwrap the gift of love?

We may be accustomed to the instant gratification of material things, but we can definitely live without them. We cannot live without each other.

As the wisdom of many Bolivian friends of mine has taught me, when we feel afraid, anxious and alone, we need each other — we need community, not more consumption.

This holiday season we must ask ourselves, are our holiday traditions feeding our hunger for connection and community? How might we liberate ourselves from the stress, distraction and debt of holiday spending and invest instead in radical inclusion, expanding our community to include those living on the margins? How might we reduce our dependence on the sins of a corrupt capitalist system and instead grow in interdependence with one another?

One way to start is by collectively engaging our communities in these questions. In sharing these questions together, we may open ourselves to hearing the needs of our neighbors. Doing so could enable us to share the gifts of love and presence and, in exchange, liberate us from the sins of consumerism.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Meat

When I walked the Camino de Santiago, I survived on a steady diet of ham sandwiches and beer.

I subjected my body to a pack that weighed more than was healthy for my frame, moved my feet over miles of terrain, felt my muscles fatigue and my flesh blister and bleed.

Every day, somewhere along the trail, I’d join other pilgrims for lunch. I’d order slices of the flesh of some other animal between bread, slobbered with mayonnaise. Between gulps of beer, I’d chew. But I never felt satisfied. I was constantly famished from the exertion of the pilgrimage, from the challenge of bringing my body closer to a holy place.

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Good Letters- The Image Journal blog. Continue reading here.]

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Beyond thank you

What is it about the nature of human gratitude that propels us to make offerings and manifest our feeling in the material world? Why do we tend to create and extend more goodness to others as a way to express our appreciation?

Lately, I am marveling in the mystery of human goodness and how it connects to gratitude. When we we say thank you, we share goodness and the goodness expands. Every gesture and offer of appreciation seems to ripple outward, increasing gladness and gratitude. And, part of what’s great is that no one ever seems to grow tired of hearing “Thank you!” There are no limits to sharing the goodness.

It’s an an ancient human phenomenon, this tendency of ours to give back and share once we’ve known a blessing. We find evidence of it in Psalm 116 as the psalmist expresses a longing to “repay” God for the goodness they have known:

How can I repay the LORD

for all the great good done for me?

I will raise the cup of salvation

and call on the name of the LORD.

I will pay my vows to the LORD

in the presence of all his people.

(Psalm 116: 12-14)

I love this adoration moment video from my community. It offers you an invitation to pray with the Psalm in union with the sacredness of our adoration chapel in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Here, in our Franciscan household, we’re doing food prep and working out our menu for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving celebration. Just like many people in the United States, we’re going to create and offer more goodness to others in order to express our gratitude for the goodness we’ve experienced. We’ll savor what’s delicious and fill our bellies. And in the midst of it all, we’ll somehow increase the gratitude that warms our happy hearts.

For many, the holiday season (Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas combined) is all about goodness and gratitude. In the coming weeks, many of us will bake sweets for neighbors and colleagues. We’ll offer gifts to loved ones and host celebrations for our family and friends. We’ll send out thank you cards and gratitude letters. Again and again, we’ll create more things, and as we do we’ll share the goodness we’ve experienced.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

This time of year, many people are also increasing their acts of service and charitable giving, and each time they do they are sharing from their abundance — often out of appreciation.

Here’s a few ways you could give your gratitude: GivingTuesday is next Tuesday, and it’s a great time to share your wealth and love. My community is raising money for our ministry fund. A nonprofit that I’ve been involved with since 2004, Waking the Village in Sacramento, California, is opening a new Tubman House site in January. It will serve 16 children and youth leaving homelessness behind, putting their strengths to work in pursuing education, career, and wellness. They are in need of donations to outfit bedrooms, kitchens, classrooms, and family rooms and have created an Amazon Wishlist. (One warning about charitable giving and service this time of year: please avoid making the struggles of others into your special holiday entertainment.)

For all the goodness you’re offering to others, for the ways you’re sharing your abundance and expressing your gratitude, I say, thank you! Thank you, good people, for extending the goodness that you have known to others and for warming others with gladness and appreciation!

Happy Thanksgiving!

What it takes to see God’s reign

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.

Photo by Brett Ritchie on Unsplash

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?

Openness to the mystery of other people

Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash

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?

At a table with other sinners, the Eucharist unites

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.]