Celibate Living in a Sex-Obsessed Society

Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.

Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?

My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The MudroomContinue reading here.]

The hope rock

With one hand I grip my luggage and move slowly down an air-bridge at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. With my other hand, I reach around to check that my backpack is securely zipped. My skin brushes a cool and smooth rock poking through the mesh pocket on the outside of my bag. I turn to my friend, Sister Priscilla, and point to the palm-sized glacial stone decorated with colored markers. With a hushed voice I quickly explain, “I forgot this hope rock was in my bag, I made it when I was leading a retreat a few weeks ago. I’m glad I’m bringing a hope rock to the border.”

Sister Priscilla and I were on our way to meet other members of Giving Voice at the Tucson airport so we could go to the SOAW Convergence at the Border. In Nogales, the giant border town that straddles the line between southern Arizona and northern Sonora, we would join immigrants, activists, and other religious for a weekend of speeches, song, and prayer. We would rally on both sides of the border fence, not far from where…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora.  Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Why I am going to the Border

I am about to leave the beautiful, safe and peaceful Northwoods of Wisconsin and travel to the U.S./Mexico border for the weekend.

I’ll be joining thousands at the SOAW Border Convergence in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico; with other Catholic sisters and members of Giving Voice as we pray and give witness for peace and compassionate immigration reform.

I am going to the border because I want to pray for the beloved deceased and be a peaceful witness.

It is a violent and contentious place where hundreds of people die unnoticed each year. Some are shot by border patrol agents, but most die of heat stroke, dehydration or hypothermia. Plus, much of the violence is spurred by economic disparities and U.S. drug and gun control policies.

Here is a map of locations where human remains were recovered by No More Deaths just in August of 2016:

RHR.Aug16.AZ.NoMoreDeaths
The red dots mark the places at which 16 human remains were found in August. One hundred twenty-five bodies have been discovered in Arizona since the current fiscal year began in October 2015. (Map by Ed McCullough. Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/92300350558/)

I am going to the border because I am concerned about immigrant detention.

In 2010 I wrote about an experience I had praying at an immigration detention center in Chicago. The knowledge I gained that day—the fact that immigrants are denied basic human needs such as hygiene supplies and food once deported—continues to disturb me. The description of humans put in cages makes my heart ache every time they surface in my mind. It is horrific that 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been seized and detained at the U.S. border between October 2015 and March 2016. Plus, I took a course about the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II and read this disturbing article that convinces me we must not detain folks based on race, immigration status nor place of origin.

A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois in June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

I am going to the border because I am a daughter of immigrants.

Much like the migrants that come today, my Norwegian and Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1800s to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families. My Irish great-grandmother came by herself as a teen and never obtained proper papers. But that didn’t make her a bad person. She was hard working and established a strong family—all who contributed to American society.

I am going to the border because others who have done so inspire me.

I am grateful for the witness of the folks who have walked The Migrant Trail and prayed for the dead. I especially appreciate this account of their journey.

I am going to the border because the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s principles of compassionate immigration reform make a lot of sense to me.

I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sure; nations have a right to protect their borders but they also must help keep families together, address root causes of migration, and honor all human dignity.

I am going to the border because I don’t want to be part of a nation that puts up walls.

I agree with Pope Francis’ words, stated after he celebrated Mass at the Ciudad Juárez U.S./Mexican border in February: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Along the same lines I think we need to stop blaming, scapegoating and discriminating. It is time for us to have intelligent and compassionate national conversations about the complex issue of immigration.

I am going to the border because my hometown has been impacted by the current broken immigration policies.

In May 2008 the community of Postville, Iowa, was torn apart by the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. (OK: technically, my hometown is about 10 miles away, but it’s certainly the same community and our Catholic parishes were served by the same priest.) It was discovered that many of the undocumented workers at Agriprocessors meatpacking plant had been told to put an X on a piece of paper when they were hired in order to start working. The forms were falsified social security card documents created by their employers not understood by the people signing them. Many of the immigrants could not read nor write English nor Spanish. I have written more about the horrific Postville immigration raid and can attest to the fact that its impacts continue to be felt in Iowa as well as in Guatemala.

Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville March, July 2008
Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville Immigration Raid Vigil, July 2008.

I am going to the border because compassionate immigration reform is long overdue.

I don’t even know how many times in the past 20 years I’ve called or written members of congress and asked for them to help pass legislation that would reform the immigration system. Or, asked them to vote against something that would hurt immigrants. Or, asked them to help protect a particular immigrant from detention or deportation. I’ve distributed postcards, signed petitions, led prayer services and attended vigils. The fact that I have not seen much progress occur in this time is frustrating and exhausting. But, I will not stop working at it because people’s lives are literally on the line.

I am going to the border because I want our nation to see that Catholic sisters are crying out for the protection of the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

I have learned that a major aspect of my vocation as a Catholic sister means that I am living a prophetic life—a life that gives witness to the fullness of God’s reign just by virtue of its countercultural nature. My vows have me saying “no” to our culture’s obsession with wealth, sex and independence so that I can say “yes” to a life of prayer, community and service for the greater good; for the glory of God. Living this way means I must constantly advocate for the poor and proclaim God’s mercy and peace to all; I must use my voice for those our society has deemed voiceless.

You can follow Convergence on the U.S./Mexico Border online this weekend by searching the hashtag #ConvergenceAtTheBorder on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up with the activities of us Giving Voice sisters in particular by searching the hashtag #GivingVoice. If you’d like more news coverage of the event, call your local media outlets and ask them to cover the story. There are resources for media here.

I hope you will pray in solidarity with us this weekend and help us advocate for peace, mercy, and compassionate immigration reform. Let us pray that we can be a nation that honors and protects the dignity of all people, especially those who are poor and fleeing violence. Let us pray for the dead and the protection of all life. Let us pray for the children who die and are detained.

Pray with us from this portion of the prayer service we will pray at the border this weekend:

Jesus, you who were a migrant, we call to you in one voice with those gathered at the border. We pray for all the people in our world who are on the move, escaping violence and poverty, and for all those who live, hiding and in fear, in our own country. God, we pray for all politicians and for all citizens, that we may be filled with your compassion. May our policies promote peace and keep families together. We pray especially for all the children caught in this web of oppression; protect them and their parents so that they may grow up in freedom. We continue to pray for comprehensive immigration reform that will, finally, offer justice for immigrants. Glory to you, God, for all that you have given us. We give you thanks, and we ask you for strength and courage. May we never tire of working for the common good; may we never lose your vision of a world of peace and love for all.  

Amen.

Praying with children crawling every which way

Recently—and a bit ironically, considering my vocation—my life has offered me an opportunity to learn all sorts of lessons about prayer and parenting.

When I was in temporary vows a few years ago I agonized about my vocation a lot. I agonized about why it was that I was called to be a Sister, especially since marriage and motherhood were also so incredibly attractive to me. I was tormented by my conflicting and equally good desires. I doubted my abilities and even the discernment that led me to religious life and kept me sticking around. “Why?!” was my perpetual question that spiraled around in my prayers and cycled on repeat through every conversation with my spiritual director.

Then, one day, while on retreat and feeling elated in the silence and solitude I was soaking up the answer dawned upon me: I am a Franciscan sister because solitude and silence help me thrive.

It was easy to picture myself as a mother and a wife. My love would be intense and I would be enthusiastic about serving and creating a strong, happy and healthy family. I knew that I’d sacrifice my needs for the sake of others and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy true solitude and prayer—to unite with God in silence. I suspected that my relationship with God would be basically put on hold for 20 years and I couldn’t bear the thought; couldn’t imagine myself as calm and grounded without a strong prayer life. Rather, all I could envision was a frantic, stressed and overwhelmed version of myself–not exactly a peaceful woman who was joyfully living the Gospel.

Perhaps I was afraid of who I might become. More than likely, though, the Spirit was guiding me to the truth of who I was made to be: a Franciscan Sister grounded in prayer and community, free to serve and love anyone who entered my life.

For the past month I have been very fortunate to stay at my younger sister’s farm in southwest Iowa–and in a sense, test out my intuition about what life would have been like as a mother. My sister is a businesswoman, a farmer, a wife, and a parent; my precious niece is three months old and my adorable nephew is three and half. During these weeks my intuition has been affirmed: yes, indeed, my prayer life is different with kids around.

My niece and me, July 2016

But, it turns out that I am not exactly frantic, stressed nor ungrounded after all.

It’s taken me a while to understand how this happened. I’ve realized that assisting with childcare hasn’t actually decreased my prayer life, but rather prayer has taken on a whole new form and shape. In this setting prayer happens between diaper changes and bouncing the baby while my sister squeezes in a meeting or a nap. Morning and evening psalms are prayed in a bouncy, choppy manner while a curious preschooler creates an imaginary play world around me.

My nephew and I, July 2016
My nephew and me, July 2016

Mostly, though, God’s presence is known through the ordinary sacredness of viewing the world through the lens of childhood—as a beginner person and a person in need. My niece stares out the the window at the green life moving in the breeze and her expression of pure wonder and awe remind me not to take God’s creation for granted. My nephew cries out “I want someone to play with me!” and interrupts my tasks with a reminder that attending to a vulnerable child is one of the best ways to unite with God’s love and listen to God’s voice.

For certain, I have learned that the prayer of parents and childcare workers is the prayer of action. It is on-the-go, and in-between. For some families prayer may be structured and formal, but for most it’s likely the holy raptness of ordinary chaos. It is listening and responding to a child’s cries, questions, or made-up story. It is asking the child to lead the meal time prayer. It is responding to the question of “How did God make the cabbage purple?” with “It is a beautiful mystery! Isn’t God amazing?!” It is, as Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rousers Nicole and Steven have each written about, integrating Truth and wonder into the messy, loving relationships and constant service of family life. It is psalms enacted and adoration of God everywhere, just like the sort of stuff that Sister Sarah will speak about in a webinar later this week.

Although my experience this past month has been a blessing and a teacher, I still feel affirmed in my vocation as a Franciscan Sister. As my time here comes to a close, I look forward to returning to my more familiar form of religious life, to sharing daily life with my FSPA sisters and a bit more structured prayer. There, I’ll pray united with parents everywhere who commune with God in the art of childcare every chaotic, beautiful day.

Bridges are built by individuals: Being sister across the divide

Last summer, I sat in a small circle of with other sisters my age at the Giving Voice conference. We were praying in silence, integrating the question our speakers had invited us to consider: What sort of borders do we desire to cross?

In the quiet, I recalled a fear that had surfaced earlier, when I was discerning whether I wanted to make my final vows with my congregation. What if, I wondered, dedicating myself to this particular way of living religious life made it look like I was only saying “yes” to a certain type of Catholicism? What if my yes was heard as a no to other lives and ways of being a woman religious?

As I looked around this circle, I noticed that all of us looked like modern women; many of us wore capri pants, sandals and cross necklaces. I had a lot in common with these women, but I knew that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"bay bridge" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“bay bridge” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Seeking corners of quiet but learning lessons on love instead

Recently I had a conversation with another sister. During the chat, we realized we had a common experience on our different retreats earlier this summer.

We had each gone to opposite corners of the country and were looking forward to some sacred one-on-one time with God. He found a way to sneak in–to surprise and enlighten both of us.

My friend shared an account of how she had gone to a chapel, hoping to pray in silence in order to spend time with the One Who Loves her (and loves everyone, for that matter), only to be distracted by all the people and the happenings inside: chatting, rosaries prayed aloud, and fussy cleaning and tidying.

Then I told her about my retreat: to a busy lake over the 4th of July weekend, where I foolishly hoped for some solitude and silence in nature. I kept trying to find quiet corners in God’s creation. Instead, I became a little irritated by the noise of speedboats, jet skis and people whooping and hollering as they had fun.

The other sister said she eventually calmed and realized she was actually in an appropriate space to savor God’s presence. God was totally present in the people distracting her silent prayer in the chapel. She felt a sense that God was there, loving each of them. In this awareness she was overcome, suddenly, with a deep sense of joy and gratitude because she felt connected to God’s love for her and everyone else in the room.

My transformation happened gradually. Eventually I realized my attitude had shifted, though. All the people screaming in joy and speeding along on boats began to seem precious to me. I realized I felt happy for them as they had a great time. And, in one sacred and fleeting moment, I felt totally in touch with how God loves each and everyone one of them just for who they are.

 

"Tall trees near Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Tall trees near Trout Lake” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Both my friend and I had certain hopes about how our prayer time would go. We had gone into contemplation seeking union with God and anticipating a certain outcome and experience.

Instead, we experienced little conversions and learned great lessons from God about love. One of the most awesome ways to be in union with God is to love others as God loves them.

Amen!

Hearts on fire for the good of all

Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.

It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”

It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and www.zazzle.com/peter_neel
“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at http://www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and http://www.zazzle.com/peter_neel

Getting ready for the party of my life

For the past three months, I have been happily preparing for the party of my life. This party will include a beautiful Mass, a locally-sourced dinner and a lively reception. The party of my life will celebrate my perpetual profession of vows with my community.

Preparation for my final vows has been busy and enjoyable. But, not everything has been simple and easy. Initially, I was really challenged by the task of balancing community traditions, my own personal hopes and the needs of my guests. Not everything has gone perfectly. I have had to re-learn lessons about flexibility and detachment. I have had to deal with disappointments and then adapt. Most recently, I learned that my friend who planned to offer the reflection during the Mass could no longer come. To this news, my incorporation director responded, “Even the prep for vows is its own formative experience!”

As I prepare for my final vows, I notice that there are certain questions that come up again and again, for me and the people around me.

Like a wedding, but not a wedding 

“How are the final vow preparations coming along?” This is the most common and conversational question I have heard from all sorts of people: friends, family and other sisters in my community.

To this question I like to respond with…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.]

photo credit: ishareimage.com

 

Table manners and global sisterhood

Over eight years ago, I had a conversation about table manners that continues to challenge me.

At the time I was a canonical novice and fairly new to religious life. During that stage of formation, I was trying to make sense of what it meant to be a Catholic sister and sort through my ideals. I was in a period of serious discernment about whether this religious lifestyle would satisfy my deepest desires, to take a vow of poverty and to serve the poor.

Then, in a somewhat ordinary conversation about table manners, I learned one of my most important lessons about what it means to be sister. The sister was outlining her expectations for mealtimes. As she did, she casually mentioned her conviction that…

 [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.]

Franciscan Global Local Group

More than boy-crazy

“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”

My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.

That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.

I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….

 [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.

Photo credit: “Journey Through the Bible, WordPress”