Missed connections and lonely souls

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.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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.

And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.

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. 

In the Christian journey’s four seasons, “All Shall be Well”

For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.

In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.

My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.

I hadn’t thought about all this in a while, but it came back to mind as I read All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World by Catherine McNiel.

I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of,  Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)

The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.

Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.

Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.

Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ and then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.

Kingdom of God

 

Wendell Berry speaks of the Kingdom of God like an economy in a way that totally burns in my soul and speaks to our world situation today. He describes four major principles of the Kingdom of God:

  1. Everything is included. Whether we want to be in it or not, all of creation is a part of the Kingdom of God.
  2. Everything is connected to everything else. The Kingdom of God is orderly. It makes sense. If you change one thing it will always affect everything.
  3. People, with our human limitations, cannot fully comprehend the Kingdom of God. We cannot know all of the creatures in it and we will never know the whole order and pattern it contains.

And then there is the last principle which really complicates things:

  1. Though we can never fully describe the order of the Kingdom of God, there are major penalties for us if we violate that order. Even though we don’t know how things are connected there are limits, and when we go over those limits we always know it.

This makes sense to me in about a million ways. God’s life and love are continually present amidst the messiness of the world today. God’s creation has an order. It makes sense. And we are inextricably connected with God and all that is. But God is also unfathomable mystery. We cannot fit God into a box! We cannot understand the amazing interconnectedness of the cosmos, our relationships and our own inner lives.

But this is where it gets tricky. When we mess up we know it, but we don’t always know how our untidiness came to be. There is an invisible line we cross, sometimes every day, which lets us know that we are not in harmony with God and the rest of the world. For me, this happens when I fall into desolation and I struggle to get out of bed. Or, when I thought we were best friends and then we are not. The hourly news feed is a constant witness to the violation of the order of peace and justice in the world. And then there is our destabilized climate and its increasing chaos—a global wake up call to the violation of the order of the cosmos.

So how is the Kingdom of God like topsoil? In the same article, Wendell Berry describes how the Kingdom of God, which he also calls the Great Economy, is like topsoil. The dirt in which things grow is amazing. It turns death into life. In topsoil, everything is connected to everything else and this tremendous, life-producing balance is maintained … but we are really not quite sure how this happens. We cannot make topsoil. And we cannot make a substitute for it or replicate the complicated, intertwined processes that make it work.

But then, somehow through misuse, we begin to “lose” topsoil. We cross over some invisible line and the miracle of interconnected life stops working. Topsoil is defined as good quality, life-giving dirt and is only preserved by the careful care of farmers. When we violate the order—when we cross that line—we lose the quality of topsoil and it’s difficult to get it back.

The concrete example of topsoil helps me see my own life and interconnectedness to God more clearly. I am a miracle of life. All around me, life is both infinitely precious and a part of me. I am the child in Manchester, England who lost her life in mindless terrorism. I am the Syrian family bombed by coalition forces. I am the forests lost to mindless industrialism and I am the last Giant Ibis. I am the stars, the wind and the precious dirt that grows life. We are all connected. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ. You are the eye, and I am the foot and love binding us forever together. We are the forces of hope. We are the destruction that seems impossible to stop.

Part of what gives me hope is that things are getting better. Contrary to popular opinion today there are fewer wars, less violence and a bigger reduction in crime rates than just a few years ago.

Every death is a tragedy that should be mourned but when we step back from the emotions and look quantitatively at our world today, the good is winning. Hope is having the last word.  Our interconnectedness is a gift and I truly believe that today more people are honoring it than ever before. This means that the Kingdom of God—God’s passionate desire for peace, justice and a world ordered by love—is becoming more visible and more possible every day.

Amen. So be it. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister 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 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, playing guitar 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.

 

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!

Nourishing community with good food: An instrument of mercy

“When you eat a meal, thank the farmer who harvested it and think about their livelihood. Food is something that connects all of us as a community, wherever we live.” Oxfam Fact Sheet

This statement is from a farmer and my sister, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann. It helps me remember that something as basic as eating food and sharing it with community influences how I contribute to the reign of God.

I am from a food family. I grew up in a rural, agricultural, Christian community that taught me to understand that caring for Earth and neighbor is an issue of social justice. Our neighbor is the land as are all creatures large and small that also claim the land as home. As a child I would help…

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

Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)
Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)

For the Love of Earth

Today is the World Day of Prayer for Creation!

This is an ecumenical and global day of prayer.  World-wide, Christians are united in prayer for the healing of this sacred home and our Sister, Mother Earth. Out of love for her, we pray in hope and thanksgiving.

Here in La Crosse, Wisconsin we are keeping vigil round the clock in our perpetual adoration chapel.

“Mary of the Angels and the moon” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Here is one of the particular prayers we are praying:

A Christian prayer in union with creation
By Pope Francis, Laudato Si

Father, we praise you with all your creatures. 
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!

Son of God, Jesus,
through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
you became part of this earth,
and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.

Today you are alive in every creature
in your risen glory.
Praise be to you!

Holy Spirit, by your light
you guide this world towards the Father’s love
and accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts 
and you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made. 
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.

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!

We pray in joy and wonder.

“Emily in awe” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Silence” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Life in dry places” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray in thanksgiving and praise of the beauty that God has made throughout the universe

“Mississippi River Clear” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Krka National Park, Croatia” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Found in Friendship Garden, La Crosse” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Iowan neighbors” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Exaltation” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Beach at Night, Florida” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray that we can be better stewards of the gifts that God has given us.

“Earth’s bounty at a market in Split” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Swamp in Minnesota” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Unnatural nest” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Climate Change Extreme” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“The view from Mt. Hosmer, Lansing, Iowa” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray that we will have the graces and courage to be in right relationship with all of creation.

May God help us all to integrate the important and challenging teachings contained within Laudato Si into our daily lives.

Amen!

“Beautiful Baltic Sea” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

alive in the studio

Trying to be a faithful Christian sometimes feels like living in God’s limitless art studio.

God is the Great Artist who is always at work creating us anew.  We get to co-create and this communion brings us closer to God.

Since ending my ministry at the high school my creativity has been slightly out of control. I have felt like I can’t keep up with the energy that has been trying to express itself.  My room has become more of an art studio than a bedroom. It is littered with paper scraps and my fingernails continue to be caked with glue, clay and paint.  God is at work and I am working to cooperate.

Apparently, being released from a stressful and demanding ministry has had an interesting impact on me.  Although little of the creativity has manifested on this blog, a lot of the holy integrations of my the past few years have been breaking loose and causing some good contemplation.

As I’ve been constructing, I’ve been thinking: Art can flower and force new consciousness.  And, creativity is a spiritual path: co-creating with God implies union with God. Truly, I can testify that when I create new things with God I experience God’s presence and energy in ways that truly astound me.  How does one describe feeling God’s energy?

For the union to exist with God while I create, I have to be open and trust. When I am writing, sculpting and painting I have to let go and let God, as cliche as it may be.  The final product is not up to me.  If I want the creations to truly glorify God, I must be empty and allow God’s creative power to be in control.  Really, I’ve found that at times a meditative trance can take over and the blessed buzz of blending words, images and textures can manifest meanings that are beyond me.  It’s really awesome.

Plus, good creativity is very messy.  Like in a healthy ecosystem, new life breaks forth out of rotting death.  The holy paschal mystery is alive and well in the chaos.  Seemingly bizarre artifacts can be combined to create something completely unusual, yet totally beautiful.  When I stand up and look at the big picture, the creative space can appear as if a storm has swept through.  Really though, there’s an order and a clarity in the mixtures. I am often surprised.  I learn a lot about God’s ways when I see the chaos of creating.

The main art project that has consumed my time and energy was building mini-grottos to pray for issues of peace and justice.  These diorama-type shrines will be prayed with by my community during our Education Week gathering this week.  The justice and peace committee that I am a part of hopes to increase consciousness, conversation and prayer around the issues of immigration, food, economics, education, church and health care.   Here’s a preview of the art for all the sisters and affiliates who read this blog:

“mighty money: a grotto to pray for economic justice”    by Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

In the building of the God’s reign, God is the Great Artist.  God is in control and we get to cooperate, often times completely clueless about the finished product.  Let’s trust God in our personal development and in the complicated messes of systemic injustices.  Let’s also do our part to help create new works of art.  When it’s up to God, new life can create new consciousness.  We never really know how other creatures shall absorb a new meaning from something we had a part in.

Alive in each of us, God is constantly clipping and creating art anew.  Wow, I love living in this art studio.