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.]
Stress warning: Content includes suicidal thoughts.
What would you say if a friend with no religious affiliation asked you the simple question: How can I find God?
This is the scenario posed to the young and the old, the famous and the not-famous and those of a variety of religious preferences who contribute their voices to the book “How can I find God? The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question,” edited by Father James Martin, S.J.
The answers vary, as does the life experience of those who Martin questions. But a few themes do stand out, including the consideration that God is found in the people around us, the invisible love of God made visible, and in our own life experiences. The book also begs a poignant question: are we finding God or being found by God? Joan Chittister says, “No one can help a fish to find the ocean. The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.” She is proclaiming that God is all around us, already finding us, already in our grasp.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it more directly: “What do I do now that God has found me? … Such a God is not easily found because we cannot find that which as near to us as our next breath and as far from us as the silence that surrounds all language.” God, I know, has already found me, but may also remain elusive as mystery.
Maybe that’s because seeking and finding always go together. As Huston Smith says, “Finding God is not like finding a mislaid object, which ends the search.” Gregory of Nyssa put this point definitively: “To seek God is to find him; to find God is to seek him.”
I love these answers! They make me seek God even more. God has already found me and I wake up to that reality. I cannot find God like I find my lost hairbrush, because the mystery of God cannot be contained, and in the finding I discover more seeking. God is in the daily reality of my own life, in my particulars and in yours.
How would you answer this basic question: How can I find God?
I find God in my daily experiences and in the people around me, but I especially find God in suffering. Maybe suffering is the moment when I stop pretending everything is okay, become more honest and vulnerable and allow God to find me.
When I was 20, everything stopped making sense. I don’t remember the immediate event that caused it but I was curled up on the bed and I started to scream. I screamed so long that they called the college campus security to check on me. As I was screaming, I had a little conversation with God.
Me: God, I don’t think I can go on any longer. I think I need to die.
God: That way out is cheating. It’s not really an option.
Me: Then what can I do?
And then all the words stopped and I had a vision. I saw lava flowing freely. Then I saw lava crusted over. Like a video I had seen of a volcano exploding underwater, the fiery, red-hot river turned quickly to a black crust when it hit the cold water. The vision became an immediate knowing, the deepest truth I have ever known in my life. There is a place or time where God’s love flows endlessly. Here on Earth, that love gets blocked and crusted over. We are here on Earth to learn the not-so-simple lesson of how to love. This learning comes with the assurance that God’s love is holding us even through such pain.
That truth has stayed with me ever since. When I get lost and discouraged, when my lava-love gets crusted over, I know God’s love is stronger, holding me ‘till I can get found again. The people who love me help me to see God, especially when I cannot do it on my own.
Once, when I was in a deep depression, a sister in my community threw a lifeline to me. Knowing that I was having a hard time loving myself or feeling love of any kind, she said, “Let us love you until you are able to do it yourself again.” She and my other sisters, my family and my friends loved me back to life. They became the face of God to me.
I think that Allison Janik, a seventh grader, says its best: “If you talk to babies and they don’t talk back, you still know they love you. I think that’s how it is with God.” That’s how it is with God: an endless love-like a river of lava, even when you can’t hear or feel that love. Like the fish in the ocean, God is all around us.
Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became 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 her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.
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.
Jesus invites us into ongoing repentance that involves receiving a new vision of belonging. In the life of discipleship, we are constantly receiving new eyes to see the world around our neighbors and ourselves in deeper reality and truth.
The book “A Riff of Love” activates imagination for creative discipleship that gives witness to this perpetual conversion and participates in this deeper reality. Author Greg Jarrell invites readers into his neighborhood to explore the depths of what it means to be truly human and what it means to be in communion with God and other persons. Through its very form, this book invites the reader on an integrative journey. Jarrell constructs each chapter as a tapestry of interwoven threads of personal stories from his neighborhood, historical narratives of place and racial relationships, theological reflections, musical connections, and self-reflective insights.
These threads come together as one encounter for the reader — an encounter beckoning transformation. And this is the thrust of the book that comes through over and over: Jarrell has been changed and is being changed through the friendships and experiences of his life, and he is eager to invite others into that journey of transformation.
As I read this book, I listened to the music of the musicians mentioned in each chapter: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Billie Holiday. These artists and the poignancy of their music have offered me new ways of seeing and have unearthed in me a connection with stories and people that otherwise felt more distant. As a saxophonist, Jarrell’s musical mind provides the reader with touchpoints for exploring new landscapes of truth.
The integration of music throughout “A Riff of Love” resonates with me as the husband of a gifted artist who is constantly ushering our community into new depths of worship through paintings, sketches, and prints. It is not as if the musical connections in this book are meant to be representations of an already-known, static truth. Rather, new dimensions of truth, lament, and beauty emerge through the encounter with art and melody.
I often wonder what faithful political engagement looks like for Christians in America today. Politics at their core, after all, are about cultivating a common life in such ways that make room for the flourishing of all. The side of political engagement that seems to make the most headlines involves the fight for policies and systems and elections that fashion a more just set of societal structures — one in which it is harder for systems of oppression to continue, where it is easier for those who are poor and on the margins to integrate into a common life marked by freedom and equity. Another vital side of political engagement (and one that I think is too often ignored, mislabeled, or even feared) involves our daily lives and habits of relationship, consumption, and neighborliness. The tiny, mundane aspects of our ordinary day-to-day life have implications for the common good.
God’s invitation to me and to my family includes imaginative discipleship of littleness, prayer, mutual care, and welcome through an intimate and intense shared life amongst persons living with and without disabilities. As this second form of political engagement, our little way is interconnected with the first (a politics towards establishing a more peaceable scaffolding of policies and laws that treat persons living with disabilities more justly and with humanity), and each is made more full in companionship with the other. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day preached about this connection and the Catholic Worker Movement is a witness to the beauty of refusing to separate personalism from the fight against what Dorothy calls “the filthy, rotten system.”
In this book, Jarrell demonstrates an understanding of politics that refuses to separate the justice of a way of life oriented around peculiar and personal friendships from the battle for new laws and policies that better reflect the reality of each person’s belonging in our common life.
None of the larger, systemic, historical issues that Jarrell explores throughout the book remain in an abstract or distant space. Rather, through pressing into the relationships in his own neighborhood and deep, attentive listening, he sees each in its proper context; sees a bit more clearly what’s going on both interpersonally and structurally.
This robust view of politics even includes attention to the interior life. I am compelled to believe that a life of justice and neighborly love offers vitality for the inner life and that deepening discoveries of one’s inward journey are connected with a life of mercy and justice. Jarrell understands this and is constantly welcoming the reader into his journey of self-reflection and attention to the movements of his own soul.
I appreciate the space to clarify some of these thoughts on Christian life and the common good through Jarrell’s writing and find myself wondering how he might engage some of the relevant variety of voices in Christian tradition: Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld.
As another white male called to an intentional way of conversion, care and friendship in a North Carolina neighborhood fraught with complexities related to a history of racism and displacement, much of “A Riff of Love” resonates with me. While Enderly Park in Charlotte has significant distinctions with our North Street Neighborhood in Durham, there is much overlap and many insights to glean from Jarrell’s discoveries. Mostly, this book challenged me to learn and to unlearn.
Through Jarrell’s witness, God is inviting me to learn more about the history of our place, the connection of this land on which I write with human movement, lending practices, segregation, urban planning, and displacement. I am also receiving an invitation to deepen the process of unlearning habits in my own life that mask or even prop up, the illusory stories that distort reality. I am reminded of the vital significance of historical remembrance and truth-telling.
I encourage everyone to read this book. Please. Read it with an openness to repent. Read it docile to the Spirit’s movement, perhaps shifting the ordering of your daily life in ways that more clearly reflect the good news of the Gospel for all creation.
May God give us the grace to slow down enough to heed Jarrell’s introductory exhortation: “… excavate your place and your soul.” Let it be, Lord.
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.
It was a bright June day when I heard a sister lament. The sister: she is named for light; we call her Lucy. At a community meeting, she stood at a podium and spoke into a microphone, her voice full of passion and frustration. She gave a State of the Union speech of sorts, yet in this case, the Union was the planet Earth.
As her exasperated voice vibrated through the room, images of pollution and charts of species decline glowed on bright screens. Her tone was intense, strong. Young and old, at least seven dozen Franciscan Sisters tried to hear the truth; we tried to love our sister, even though her message was tough to hear. Many of us squirmed uncomfortably as she, an ecologist and farmer, admitted that the picture of this planet is grim.
“I am finding it really hard to love homo sapiens right now!” she admitted while acknowledging that she is not free from playing a part in the environmental crisis either. “Earth would be better off without us. It could spit us off and have a better chance of surviving.”
I was reminded of Sister Lucy’s lament this week as I watched Greta Thunberg’s speech given to the United Nations. You can’t skip this video. Please watch it right now. Even if you’ve already watched it, watch it again.
Like Sister Lucy, Greta’s tone is appropriately intense and angry, for the State of the Earth is serious. “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Now, I can’t stop thinking about how to act, how to not fail children like Greta (she’s 16 years old!), how to not fail the Christian call to steward the gifts of creation. To not change our ways and care for the most vulnerable is evil, as she says. I feel challenged and shamed, in the best of ways. I feel compelled to truly repent and to change. To admit my sorrow and to grow.
It is time for repentance and conversion. All of humanity, rich and poor, privileged and marginalized, powerful and weak — we all must act if we want to save ourselves. We must change our hearts, our minds, our ways of living. We must change our behaviors and attitudes.
No matter what type of change we’re talking about, all change starts with a shift in perspective. It’s time for us to see that we’re not here to have dominion over any other life. Rather, our health and survival as a species are completely dependent on the health and survival of other species, on every ecosystem. We are completely interdependent on other life forms.
When Sister Lucy spoke to my community in June, I learned a new way to understand this. We are called to be ecocentric instead of egocentric. Our species is one among many. As other species become endangered and extinct, so could we. As the planet becomes healthy and balanced again, so will we.
We are not above any other species. Rather, we are part of the ecosystems and are totally dependent on other species. And the earth is suffering, and it’s very serious. I’ll save you the litany of horrors. (But you can read this article to learn the latest.)
The actions we take from here on out must be based on these facts. We must act with wild hope and faith that every person matters, that all of our actions have significance. We must trust that small acts contribute to the big picture. What is needed now are individual lifestyle changes and systemic changes. We must truly act locally and unite globally to change the political and economic systems that are oppressing our planet.
There are a lot of options, really. 101 things you can do to fight climate change are listed here. Here are a few that I’ve decided on.
Eat differently. For some, like myself, that’s becoming vegetarian. For others, it’s eating less meat, or wasting less overall. Others opt to grow one’s own food or buy from local farmers. All of us must do something, though. “We need a radical transformation — not incremental shifts — towards a global land-use and food system that serves our climate needs,” Ruth Richardson in Toronto, Canada, the executive director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, has declared. Clearly, it is essential we understand how global agriculture truly works and eat in ways that are more sustainable.
Travel less. This is the hard one for me because I tend to live a fairly itinerant Franciscan life. Yet, every time I calculate my carbon footprint, it is apparent to me that if I stop using planes and cars then I’d drastically reduce the harm I inflict on other species.
Stop purchasing bottled water and soft drinks. I like flavored and carbonated waters as much as the next person. But, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture water bottles every year. And, as it becomes more apparent that plastic recycling is mostly a myth, I am especially challenged to stop using all plastic. From now on, I will go nowhere without my refillable water bottle. It’s one simple thing I can do.
Join climate advocacy organizations, such as Oxfam,Greenpeace, or Catholic Climate Covenant. These organizations need your financial support and your participation. Join them in the advocacy events they organize in order to act for systemic change and help protect the planet and the poor. You can easily write your U.S. senator about supporting the International Climate Accountability Act (S.1743) here.
No matter how we respond to the prophetic laments of people like Sister Lucy and Greta Thunberg, let us act with love.
Our life depends upon it.
God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight. Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out. O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love, and beauty. Praise be to you! Amen. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí)
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.
Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.
It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…
I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.
I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.
I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.
Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.
I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…
In my imagination, I am a girl of 10 years old, playing tag with my older brother. We are running through the stone streets of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. My calloused feet are well-accustomed to the alleyways and paths, to the steps and hills; I know my way around and am familiar to the rhythms inside these city walls. I know all the best hiding spots and my body is small; I have an advantage over my older brother and can easily jump out to tag him when he runs by.
The crowds swarm through the streets, many people still lingering after yesterday’s Passover feast. They have sacrificed much to come pray near the wonder of the temple, I know, but its might and grandeur is ordinary for me. I see it every day. The pilgrims are in my way, they’re making it tough to watch for my brother. Hiding under a cart, I think a bit about this. I see another criminal in chains walk down the street, guided by guards most likely to his trial. Some rabbis walk in front, their faces scowling.
Something is strange about this man. Compared to others, he doesn’t seem to be wicked at all. He isn’t tense or yelling insults at anyone near by. He isn’t cursing the guards. He actually seems to be loving everyone around him, to be at prayer, to be in peace. He seems like he is peace.
I no longer feel interested in tricking my brother, of outsmarting him in our game. I am much more curious about this strange criminal. I decide I am done, and I will meet my brother at home later. I crawl out of my hiding spot and join the crowd, a group of adults who are walking with the strange man, looking gloomy. Some are crying, softly. I can tell from their accents that they are from out of town. Galileans, perhaps?
There is something unusual going on here. I feel drawn into the crowd that I was annoyed with moments ago. I begin to follow along, moving down the road. I tuck my body between the adults, trying to get a look at the man who seems so mysterious, so different. I catch a glimpse of his face and notice how brave he looks.
I wonder if this is the man I heard my mom and grandma murmuring about, Jesus the Galilean, who came to town the other day. People gathered in the street yelled out “Hosanna!” They cheered and waved palm branches. It was a bit of a counterprotest to Pilate who came into town from the other direction, on a big horse, horns announcing his arrival. At least I heard mom say something like that — she was so excited when she talked about it. My grandma laughed in my mom’s face. “Just another one thought to be the Messiah! Ha!”
The chains around his arms and ankles don’t seem to bothering this man now. “Who is he?” I ask a lady wearing blue, her face twisted with concern. She doesn’t really look at me, her gaze is fixed on him. “Jesus, from Nazareth,” she whispers. So it is the Galilean! Why is he in so much trouble now?
I’ve never attended a trial before. I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to enter along with the rest of the crowd. I think about this as I follow the people to the place where Pontius Pilate stays when he’s around. “He has to maintain the illusion of control …” I think how my dad mutters this every time Pilate comes into the city to meet with the rabbis and the troops. I don’t really know what Dad means. I do know, though, that I doubt they care about me or my family at all.
The man, Jesus, stands still. He isn’t grinning but he continues to seem content, as if he is fine with what’s going on. Pilate comes outside to the courtyard where we all are gathered. He looks bothered, like he’d rather be doing something else. He speaks with some of the rabbis — are they the chief priests from the temple? — who I can see now are angrily directing the guards.
“We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Christ, a king!” one of the rabbis says this loudly to Pilate, more like an announcement than a complaint.
Pilate turns to Jesus who still stands quietly, wearing his chains. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks him.
“You say so.” Jesus almost seems unworried as he says this, so calmly.
Pilate then speaks loudly to all of us. “I find this man not guilty,” he says.
One of the priests seems really upset. “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began, even to here!!”
“He’s a Galilean?” Pilate asks. I see that the people are nodding, muttering “yes.” I feel myself nodding too, for I knew the answer as well.
“Well then, take him to Herod! I heard he’s in town now too!” Pilate says.
The chief priests seem frustrated, but they apparently agree that this case falls under Herod’s judgement. They tell the guards to go bring Jesus to Herod, and all of us in the crowd follow along through the streets, past the market. We can’t go inside and see Herod along with Jesus, but I want to know what’s going to happen so I stay close; I wander through a nearby street.
For awhile I join some other children who are chasing birds. When a lady sees that I am admiring the cakes she’s baking over her fire, she offers me one. It is steamy and delicious, almost as good as my mom’s. I thank her with a big smile.
I didn’t wander too far away from Herod’s place, so I could hear the screams when Jesus reemerges. I run over and see that someone has forced some strange clothes upon Jesus. He now wears resplendent robes instead of his simple grubby clothes from before. He’s a little swollen and bloody too. Were they beating him? Some lady in the crowd looks really upset; she was probably the one who screamed. Herod was making fun of him! I doubt Jesus did anything to incite it. Why are people being so mean to him? I am upset too.
The guards begin pulling Jesus forward; the chief priests are close by. The whole crowd starts moving through the streets again. Where are we going now? Oh, back to Pilate’s place, it seems. Some of the people in the crowd are muttering. Are they planning something?
When we get back to Pilate, he stands next to Jesus and makes a big announcement, gesturing to the peaceful man as he speaks. “You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
As soon as Pilate says this, the people begin to shout. “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!!” So this is what they were planning! They keep shouting it over and over. I am surprised that they’d want Barabbas instead of the gentle man, Jesus. I heard about Barabbas. He was leading all sorts of violent protests, trying to take over. He even killed some people! “Not a man to mess with!” My dad had said.
Pilate seems as confused as I am about their request. “Really? Well, if I do that, what do you want me to do with Jesus?” he asks the people around me.
“Crucify him! Crucify him!” the people all around me are shouting.
Pilate looks at Jesus. Jesus still stands tall, bravely accepting his fate. He pauses before he speaks again. “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore, I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
“Crucify him! Crucify him!” Everyone shouts this phrase over and over. The chant is catching. I am surprised to notice I am yelling the words too, even though I don’t really know what I am saying.
As we shout, I watch Pilate shrug his shoulders and talk to the guards. After a while, a gruff man –Barabbas? — appears among us, looking smug. The chief priests and guards lead the way, and the crowd moves through the streets again. As I follow along, I start to feel frightened. What are they going to do with Jesus?
When I realize that we are moving toward Golgotha I remember that Mom and Dad told me, their tones haunting — that I am not allowed to go there. I start to wonder if I have been away from my home long enough. I am starting to get hungry for lunch.
When I see that they are making Jesus carry a cross, I figure out they are going to kill him. My body clenches in horror. I feel scared and upset. I want to be close to my Mom. Jesus is so peaceful and brave. He seems so good and kind! Why do they want to kill him?