From stone to flesh

“Heart of Stone” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter’s snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.

Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don’t realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of…

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

Following Jesus outside the box

Since I was a kid, good folks started challenging me to think “outside the box.”

In one case, I remember sitting in the shade on a hot day with a group of girls at Bible camp and our counselor offering a puzzle: I am going on picnic and bringing cookies and my glasses. What are you bringing? Can I bring chips? No, no chips on this picnic … The puzzle would continue all week until all of us in the group figured out that it wasn’t about objects or colors or any other typical category that defined what we could bring: we could only bring words that had double letters.

Now, decades later, I understand that playing such a game at Bible camp was not just a time-filler, not just a way to keep a bunch of girls out trouble. Rather, such puzzles were brilliant opportunities to introduce me and my peers to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship: following Jesus’ demands that we think differently.

“We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to “think outside the box” regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don’t always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it.”  ~ Linda L. Clader, Voicing the Vision.

Here’s a bit about the boxes that get in the way of following Christ.

box-freeimages.com
Image courtesy freeimages.com

In the Kingdom of God there are no enemies because we’ve loved them all into our friends. Death and division don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to pick a political party, wear the latest fashion or obsess over petty things. We don’t have to choose a side or declare right or wrong.

In the Kingdom of God we get to be compassionate, nonjudgmental folks and rebel against the crowds of judgmental people by loving everyone. We get to listen and love and see the good in everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done. We don’t have to fight back or run away when oppression or violence comes toward us; rather, we get to stand up for justice and peace with creativity and compassion.

To be free of these boxes means that we can let go of anything that blocks our imaginations from dreaming up a world where all human dignity is honored and protected, where peace and justice are abundant for every creature, where heaven is known and experienced in this world. To be free of these boxes means that nothing can contain the ways we work for Christ. There are no limits to how we offer mercy, kindness, forgiveness and love. There are no expectations either, for when we allow God’s power to work through us, we can be surprised again and again by what wonders can occur, how goodness can be triumphant.

May the Spirit of God help us escape the box of either/or and give us the grace we need to be active in the energy of both/and—all in the space where we see that every person (Yes, even that person!) is a sinner and a saint, where all of us are works in progress in need of God’s grace.

Then we shall be freed from the limits of our human understanding and imagination. Then we can follow the ways of Christ’s love and can live in joyful awe of God’s work in the world!

 

Redefining faith on El Camino

Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?

Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.

And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.

But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.

I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…

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

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

broken-cup-by-Julia-Walsh
Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

A “woke” Joseph and the great Christmas challenge

Merry Christmas!

With the birth of Christ, we’ve entered into the season of the Incarnation. The arrival of the Incarnation is God-made-flesh and dwelling among us as a babe long ago and God’s powerful presence active in each ordinary moment. God is near, God is here: peer into the humble love revealed among the heartaches, the light shimmering and providing peace. This is God among us.

We must wake up and pay attention to the many holy ways Christ is alive and in our midst.

Speaking of waking up and paying attention, in the past year or so I have heard a lot of folks use the word “woke” in phrases like

“Stay woke.”

“The woke people give me hope.”

“Now that I’m woke I can’t go back.”

If you’re not familiar with the modern colloquialism, my friend Sister Nicole Trahan offered a lovely reflection on what it means to “be woke” for Global Sisters Report in June.

Basically, as I understand it, “being woke” means to be aware of injustices; in-tune and conscious of what’s really happening in the world and how oppression seeps into many structures of society.

This sort of consciousness, I’d like to suggest, is a Christmas mode. We can’t help but to expand our consciousness when we come to know The Truth—Truth is one of the many names for God.

Praying and meditating on the Christmas Scriptures, I found myself pondering the impacts of Joseph being woke:

When Joseph awoke,

he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him

and took his wife into his home.

He had no relations with her until she bore a son,

and he named him Jesus.

~ Matthew 1: 24-25

sleeping-Joseph-baby-Jesus--catholicprayercards.org
“Sleeping St. Joseph” (courtesy of www.catholicprayercards.org)

A woke Joseph? I know the context might be a stretch, but hear me out. Although the word in the Gospel is awoke and not woke, and Joseph was literally waking from sleeping, clearly Joseph gained a new consciousness and awareness in the midst of his dreaming in the dark. When he was troubled, Joseph encountered God in the dark and was forever changed.

We all have been journeying in the dark; many of us still are. We have felt disturbed and troubled. The Christian invitation has moved us toward the pain.

We, like Joseph, have been transformed because we have come to know the Truth. Being woke, though, isn’t just about knowing. Nor is Christmas.

The Christmas challenge (that Joseph has modeled for us so well) is that we must move into action. Even bold, drastic, counter-cultural actions that might be misunderstood. Do you think it was easy for Joseph to have “no relations” with his wife Mary? Probably not. Can you imagine how much his friends might mock him for that if this story were to happen in the modern world?

And, what about the naming of his son Jesus? Would that have been an easy action for the sake of God’s plan? I’m no expert, but I don’t think it would have been. Breaking with tradition is always likely to disturb the status quo and confuse community. A scene from the film The Nativity Story comes to mind in which the midwives turn to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, after her son John is born, and say “What will you name him?” When Elizabeth replies John, they all protest. “But there is no one in your family by that name!”

Being woke with the Truth that many are suffering compels us to name Jesus, to help people know love in the midst of turmoil. This is the great Christmas challenge: we must let our conversion move us into action for the sake of God’s plan. Through bold acts of love, through courageous defenses of human rights and the dignity of life, we proclaim who Jesus Christ is to the world: Prince of Peace, Counselor, Emmanuel, King of Kings, Light of the World, The Way, The Truth, The Life.

Yes, Jesus Christ is born and is here among us; we shall never be the same!

Merry Christmas!

Challenged to trust in Mystery

Yesterday I finished packing up my classroom. A somber weight pressed upon my shoulders as I cleaned out my desk, dusted shelves and put books and picture frames in boxes.

In the silence I prayed in gratitude for the room that has held so much life and energy for me during the past four years. I smiled as I thought of the love, learning, laughter, singing, dancing, and playful energy that the four walls had held. I sighed with relief to know that I will no longer have endless piles of papers to grade or have to deal with the pressure of an academic calendar. Sadness colored the blank walls with the intensity of letting-go.

I am not sure if I’ll ever teach in a classroom again. I am not sure what the future holds. I don’t know what God has in store for me.

I know some of the general facts, of course. This fall I will begin serving as a program and retreat presenter at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin. I’ll live with some sisters from my congregation in the Spirituality Center’s lodge on Trout Lake and have the opportunity to connect with God alive in creation each and every day. I’ll continue writing and studying, hoping to complete the master’s degree I have been working on and increase my creative writing endeavors.

And, I know I’ll continue to live my life as an FSPA and that I’ll offer myself for the service of God and God’s people. I know I’ll remain connected to my family and friends. And, I believe God will continue to guide me and show me the way.

I am not afraid of the future. I am encouraged by the past. I am challenged to trust in the Mystery and remain faithful to the Truth of Love.

God’s invitation to change ministries and move on came to me like a whisper, like a gentle nudge felt both in the exterior of community life and in the solid feelings of my body and heart. Mid-Lent I was at a meeting with some of my sisters, a discernment circle. I told the other sisters that I thought I’d make a change in ministry within a couple years and read aloud a list of the things I really hoped for in wherever God called me to next: more time in nature and for writing, ministry in an area of high need, service to the poor and marginalized, a strong community life. I had all sorts of ideas about how this could look, but hadn’t even thought about moving further north and into a largely rural area.

Our God is totally a God of surprises though, and once dreams are announced to a loving community one can let go and let the Spirit show the way. After I shared my general dream in that discernment circle a couple of sisters from Marywood spoke about the needs in the Superior diocese. As they spoke, one of the FSPA I am the closest to shot me a “Are-you-hearing-this?” look that I tried to ignore. Within days, more occurrences served as glaring road signs directing me to let go of the timeline I’d created and accept that it was actually the best time for me to move onward. When I prayed about what might happen, I heard encouragement to ask the sisters at Marywood about possibilities as soon as I could. A deep peace warmed my gut and my thoughts were immediately reframed. Before I could completely catch on, the Spirit blew through and stirred up my entire life.

When things shifted for me, I was in the midst of teaching my students about the epistles of the New Testament. I spoke to my students about St. Paul’s travels and itinerant, missionary life. I described how he went into some cities–such as Corinth, Phillipi, Ephesus, and Thessalonica–for no more than a couple years and established a strong Christian community centered on Love and service in a very relational way. He would preach in synagogues and minister and offer a loving presence straight out of the store where he mended tents and in the homes of those who hosted him. He was effective as a minister because he was excellent as a communicator and relationship builder.  He was a master of maintaining relationships once he transitioned onward.

I am challenged by St. Paul’s witness in the early Church and encouraged to remain faithful to the Franciscan traditions of itineracy, preaching and poverty. I hope to maintain my own movement proclaiming the goodness of God, detached from taking possession or ownership of any particular place, ministry or group of people.

Nothing is mine. All is in the hands of God. There is a great sense of liberation in knowing this. And freedom permits me to joyfully express gratitude:

I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11

I am not sure if I’ll ever return to teaching in a high school classroom or how exactly I will be of service to God and God’s people in the long-range future. I leave, though, with faith that the future is in God’s hands.

No matter how we are nudged and encouraged, I believe that God can shine goodness into any situation and the challenge of letting go.

"Rowing on Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Rowing on Trout Lake” by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

Mud, muck, and the courage of change

I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!

The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faithsuch courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.

God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!

Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of springof beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormantshows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.

Photo credit: https://strangfordloughnationaltrust.files.wordpress.com

Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle (published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:

There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.

Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate. 

During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.

True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.

In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.

Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)

And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:

Amen! Alleluia!

To honor Baby Jesus

Merry Christmas!!

I have an invitation for you this week.

Let us all enter into the story of Christmas and consider the amazing Truth: our God humbly, beautifully, became one of us.

We, as a humanity, have never been the same since. The Incarnation really changed everything. Now, we are people of the New Covenant, this Messianic Age.

God’s entrance into the grime of our human living means that we are transformed into holy co-creators with God.

If we REALLY think about it, and pray about it, we can’t help to have our minds totally blown with wonder and awe.

And, then, hopefully, once we realize that we are empowered to use all of our human potential—our minds, gifts, strengths, and passions—we’ll want to offer it all to God and help create the justice and peace that Jesus proclaimed.

We’ll ask hard questions, seek true answers, and allow ourselves to really be in the messy business of social and personal change.

That’s what I invite you all into this week: to join me in honoring the Baby Jesus by signing up your life; becoming part of the messy business of living as a change-maker.

Together, let’s say yes to the Love of God with all that we are. Amen!

Photo credit: “Christ Child” by Lorna Effler http://revelationchristianart.blogspot.com/

By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s a film that I am excited to see in La Crosse in about nine days that fits with the work of being messy, Incarnation-centered change-makers:

Beautiful chaos and Lenten conversion

Recently, I asked my students what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Kingdom of God.” This (low-quality) photo summarizes the lively classroom discussion that occurred that day.

"Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As I told my students, I intentionally recorded all their comments on the board in a very messy fashion because I want them to see that the Kingdom of God is not orderly and predictable. In fact, living in the Kingdom of God that Jesus established means that we are living in the midst of beautiful chaos.

Through the incarnation Christ empowered us build the Kingdom of God. And, if we’re doing the work of building the Kingdom of God, we’re people who are moving into the chaos, out of our comfort zones, and toward the margins of society.

As we serve others we are invited into more chaos, into encounters and relationships that may disturb us. We love and serve those who Christ loves, we go against our natural inclinations and logic. We love our enemies and those who may not deserve it. We give and love without judgement or attachment. We remember that “we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

The chaos, the messiness of building the Kingdom of God is the stuff of beautiful chaos. It is also the stuff of personal and social conversion. During this Lenten season, our actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving challenge us to confront the uncomfortable corners in ourselves that are in need of God’s loving attention. As we let go of attachments and rearrange a bit of our living, an ugly seeming image of ourselves can emerge. We look at ourselves and see an inner chaos; we feel disturbed by truth. We need to grow, to be different, to convert more fully into who God made us to be.

I recently heard another Sister speak about how the chaos of a crisis gives us a chance to make a choice, frequently providing just the impetus we need to change. She connected these vital moments that invite our personal growth to the designs in God’s creation. When we study nature, she mentioned, we can recognize that the next evolutionary stage erupts when there is crisis and a need for change to occur.

I feel as if I am on this edge. The chaos of my weakness swirls about me, challenging me to make choices. I started Lent two weeks ago with a bit of my typical overambitious and idealistic intentions. And then I quickly started failing. Days would get busy and I would forget that about the extra tasks I wanted to do, like writing a card to someone I love each day. Now I am challenged to ask myself difficult questions, like why am unrealistic with myself? And, am I making enough time for others? I am challenged to move to more self-awareness and allowed to make another choice.

Each of us dance with questions and disturbances in the chaos of God’s Kingdom. We are allowed to make choices that allow for greater personal growth. We are invited to encounter the chaos that is the lives of others.

Then together–as a community–we change the structures, systems and inner oppression that don’t allow God’s Kingdom to fully come into the here and now. We forgive. We heal. We teach. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We love God with all that we are. Then, the peace, justice and love that is the Kingdom of God can be known in this time now.

Amen!

 

 

In Its Time

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Eccl 3:11)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

I am sorry to disappoint everyone but this beautiful passage, spoken ages ago, passing the test of time to get here today, was written just for me. I am sure of it. For the past few years, I’ve been a student of journeys. I’ve walked with others, and I’ve certainly been on my own. You learn a few things when you’re the witness of some deep suffering and exalted joys.

1: You can often feel bipolar because huge climactic changes can happen in the flip of a switch. These moments cause you to reflect on the moment before and freeze that emotion, whether it was calm, peaceful and excited, or moody, dark, and anxious.

2: There is an immediate reactionary building period to those changes. It’s where you set your resolve, your personal priorities and rudimentary boundaries. This event might change you as a person and you want to make sure you have the inherent qualities you like about yourself.

3: In between those moments of change come big expansive times of anxious doubt (Why hasn’t anything good happened in a while? Am I chasing the wrong dream?) and envious comparison (Everyone seems to be happy and have their desires. Sigh).

4: Peppered in that anxious doubt are moments of excited clarity. I can feel something is about to happen, but what? How do I prepare for this?

5: And then BOOM another change, another moment, and you start the process all over again.

It’s exciting stuff, change. Life. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the unfolding of it. Six years ago I started my awareness of infertility. Three years ago I was suddenly notified of my impending divorce. Since then I’ve been focused on healthy healing and patient waiting with quiet, such quiet anxious hopes. It’s so hard to trust. It is. But I can firmly say that I have definitely tried my best at it. And wouldn’t you know? I’m getting married this Saturday.

Indeed, He has made everything beautiful, in its own time.