The myth of the self-made person and the true demand of discipleship

A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.

Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.

All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.

We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?

From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.

All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.”  It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.

For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.

This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.

So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person. God’s ways are better than my ways.

Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.

Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.

And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.

Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:

“Understory”
by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.

Photo credit: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com

Reconfiguring my discipleship

Photo credit: by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.

The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”

From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.

You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.

This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.

This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.

And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.

The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.

But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.

I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.

And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.

The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.

Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.

Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.

Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.

If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

When Jesus came to the ER

It may have been one of the loneliest moments in my life. I was alone in a small, bare triage room with only an examining table. An armed guard was posted outside the door. My clothes had been taken from me and I was wearing a flimsy gown that opened in the back. I was barefoot. I stayed like this for two and a half very long hours. I felt totally alone.

hospital-bed
Image courtesy freeimages.com

I had just checked myself into the emergency room for depression. Through years of struggle and ups and downs, I had reached a low point. I did not feel capable of keeping myself safe so I turned to hospitalization. What I didn’t know was that in this moment of crisis, while I waited to be examined and for a room to open on the unit, that I would feel so utterly alone and abandoned.

The hospitalization ended up being quite helpful and I was able to get to a better space in my life with more stability. Months later, while I was on retreat, the memory of the small room returned to me in prayer. Through the eyes of prayer, this is what I saw:

I’m alone, sitting on the bare, cold floor. A security guard waits outside the room, keeping watch. Then the door opens and Jesus walks through. Jesus looks like a farmer woman. She’s wearing blue jean overalls and has black curly hair that overflows her tender face. She looks at me and smiles and suddenly, I don’t feel so alone. Jesus walks in the room and sits down on the floor behind me. She encircles me with her arms. I lean back and place my head on her heart. I am surrounded with love. All at once, we are in a beautiful field umbrellaed by a bright blue sky. Instead of a bare, tile floor we are sitting on the soft earth with our feet and hands digging into the dark, rich dirt. We stand up and she takes my hand. We are running in the field filled with stunning wild flowers. I feel free and happy. I know Jesus is with me.

That prayer helped to heal my memory. It also taught me an important lesson. I am never alone. Jesus is always with me. Especially in those moments when I feel most abandoned, there are times that I am most closely accompanied by the Living Christ. When life gets messy, Jesus shows up. This lesson has helped sustain me through other difficult moments and helped me be present to others when they are struggling. It has also taught me about love.

 

lava-flow
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Love is a letting go, a stripping of self, an abandon of control. I also firmly believe that love is the entire purpose of our lives. I see love as an endless stream of hot, fiery lava. In some place or time that lava flows without end. But here on Earth, love crusts over like lava does when it hits cold air. We spend our lives bumping into other people’s crusts. We spend our lives learning how to open up and to love more completely. That is why we are here.

Depression has taught me that through my darkest moments, I am not alone. Even though it is a struggle to always see it, I am deeply loved. Jesus is with me. My friends and family and sisters in community are with me. I still have something to give. I can hold the hand of someone else when they are in the darkness. I can be a small light for them. I can be the voice of love because through experience I know we all walk together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

On the brink and remaining steady: solid footing in rapid change

“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”  — “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)

Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.

We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.

Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.

Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.

As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge,  we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.

In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:

133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).

134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.

135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.

Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.

Photo courtesy of Charish Badzinski

As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.

Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here.  Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.

. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.

Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .

As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.

No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.

What we have learned 10 years after Postville, the largest immigration raid in U.S. history

Children in traditional Hasidic Jewish attire run joyfully on the playground. Some of their playmates speak Spanish, others are Anglos with bobbing blond hair. Multiple languages float through the August air under the music. A Mexican band sings and strums its guitars as the sequins on the band member’s sombreros glitter in the sun. I sit with hundreds of people at picnic tables, munching food made by our neighbors: tacos, shish kabobs, falafel, pelmeni, borscht, pierogies, Maid-Rites, venison and pie. There is a sacredness to the event, a holiness to this community. This, I think, is what the reign of God might look like.

But this is not heaven. It is…

[This is the beginning of an article I wrote for America. Continue reading here.]

“2007 Taste of Postville.” Photo credit: http://postvilleproject.org/

Praying with the power of paradox

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.

I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.

I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.

The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…

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

Kneading Dough

The smell of bread baking wafts, stills her light
as she enters bouncing, screen door clanging.
              Show me, Grandma. I want to know.
For the next batch, she is held firm between
warm embrace and floured dough upon tan
table. She’s stunned by the flowing union
of grandma’s arms and shaking dough.
Punch into the metal bowl, there you go.
The holy is here in the expanding yeast,
in the building of love’s awed vitality.
Rising bread and growing girl, all glory
and praise is poured forth in the communion
of kneading dough.

(This poem was previously published as part of the essay “Franciscan Eucharistic people: living into our call” by Sister Sarah Hennessy in FSPA Presence magazine (July 2017) and in the November 16, 2017 issue of Superior Catholic Herald.)

franciscan-sisters-kneading-dough
Source: FreeImages.com

Have a blessed Feast of Corpus Christi, Messy Jesus Business readers! I hope you will join me in striving to honor the sacredness of every beloved body–human and otherwise–and the holiness of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament of bread and wine. Love, Sister Julia

Easter haikus

                    the ice drifted out
 fish, otter, loons released
 lake ripples broadly




green gradually
overcomes brown         building up
diversity's wisdom



awoke, rising, bold
every budding leaf shows how
justice demands change




love is feeding others
love is breakfast on the beach
love is going out





the boat moves over
horizons, maps, mystery
         the plain of blue water




the egg cracks open
     baby robin sings a song
yes to this new life




love is giving
     love. open. community.
love frees all to be


photo by Julia Walsh FSPA