The Holy Mountain

Last summer my partner and I spent a month in Ireland. Below is a reflection I wrote after climbing Croagh Patrick, an ancient pilgrimage site where St. Patrick was said to have fasted for 40 days in the 5th century.

Up the holy mountain. Following a stream of stones and prayers into the mist. The fern-green embrace holds my pilgrimage. With each step it becomes clear that this mountain has known me from the beginning of time. It cradles the infinite. It holds in its heart specks of stars and primordial clay. It vibrates with the energy of the cosmos.  

hikers, mountain
Visitors at the foot of the Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick (image courtesy croagh-patrick.com)

The final ascent is terrifying. An almost vertical climb on slate slippery stones. My heart drives blood through my body, into my shaky knees, through my ears. I hear its deep, booming pulse. It feels good to stretch, to breath, to move, to burn.  

At last the slope begins to curve toward the summit and I see his bed, adorned with rosaries from around the world. A space held sacred for a millennium.

Nearby, the tiny mountain church, where I had hoped to take shelter from the cold and rain, is locked. For a while, I stand under a church eave eating a banana. I get ready to leave and walk around the building.

As I turn the corner, three old Irish men are standing at the church door. One of them has a key. (His daughter was married at the church last year and the priest forgot to ask for the key back.) He flings the doors open. I ask if I can join, and the four of us walk in.

It’s warm and dark and safe in the church. A statue of Patrick stands behind the tabernacle next to Christ on the cross. The fellas walk past the kneelers, up to the simple altar.

They ask me to take their picture with the Saint and the Son of God. I do. Then one them takes out a flask and four small metal cups. He pours the whiskey into the cups on the altar.  

He looks to his friends, Boys, this one’s for Damien.

He slides me a glass, Fer the photographer.  

We throw back the whiskey. The warm spreads down my cold body. They ask if I want another. They say if I have a couple more, I could fly down the mountain.

I thank God that the Church, in that moment, was stripped down to what it was meant to be. A place for ordinary people to share life, to create sacrament, to claim as our own. I thank God for the sanctity of complete strangers. I thank God for the Eucharist in a shot of whiskey on the Holy Mountain.

mountain, sheep
Croagh Patrick (image courtesy croagh-patrick.com)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Joe Kruse

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

With apologies to Agathon

Easter-cross-freeimages.com
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

“O happy fault, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

~ “The Exsultet: The Proclamation of Easter

It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.

“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”

~ Agathon

Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.

And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.

But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.

When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.

I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.

In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Holy Week is here

Here we are!

The Lenten journey is ending and it is time to emerge from the desert and enter into the Paschal mystery.

Holy Week has arrived! Here’s a quick background on these sacred days in the Church year:

 

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

For your prayer and mediation this week, I’d like to share with you a couple of poems written by a fellow Franciscan and my friend, Br. David Hirt:

Bethany

(For Monday of Holy Week)

You came into our life on feet
like dusty heartbeats, beating bare,
your human heart out-pouring love
and life for one whom even death
itself could not keep back from you.
And I have nothing worth your gift;
incomp’rable, to place into
your hands but my most costly thing;
a poor excuse compared with All.
This earthen vessel, feminine,
I break before your dusty feet
and pour its oil, perfumed and rich,
to cleanse the dust from calloused toes
and wipe them, intimate, with hair
that just a spouse should see and fear
I intimate your death. This gift,
this chrism meant for you alone
lifts up its heady scent and fills
this house like prayer, confirming dust
with sanctity and all because
you came into my life on feet
like dusty heartbeats beating bare.

 

 

“water into wonder” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Upside Down

(A Poem for Holy Thursday)

And everything is upside down,
like faces mirrored in a bowl:
an earthen vessel, roughly formed,
that’s full of water while the one
who once was robed, incomp’rable,
in light removes his outer robe
to tie a tow’l, a servant’s garb,
around his waist and stoops to wash
his foll’wer’s feet of traces from
the dusty Roman roads they’ve walked.
Yes everything is upside down
for whom in all this world would like
to think that him whose praise we sang,
“Hosanna to King David’s son,”
should stoop to take a servant’s part.
Oh we would rather he should reign
on high with us at his right hand.
But Servant Lord, incomp’rable,
you call us to remove our pride,
an outer robe, and stoop to wash
all others’ feet: humility,
and thrust down deep our dusty feet —
to take the love you offer us —
into the bowl reflecting you.

 

Read the rest of  Friar David’s poems for Holy Week here

“look up to the cross” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Holy One, Open me to your mystery during these sacred days. Change me and renew me, so I may enter into the Easter season prepared to celebrate and proclaim your Good News with my life. Amen.

 

Good Friday: The crosses we create

Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.

Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.

station 8

For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.

 

Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”

We refused to speak out against—or to even realize—the ways that we accept and allow racist systems to continue, economically and politically. We burdened others with heavy beams.

We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.

We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.

We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.

We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.

 

We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.

Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.

 Yet it was our pain that he bore,

our sufferings he endured.

We thought of him as stricken,

struck down by God and afflicted,

But he was pierced for our sins,

crushed for our iniquity.

He bore the punishment that makes us whole,

by his wounds we were healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5

 

Where has all the fervor gone?

Happy Easter!!

It’s time for joyous, bright, colorful feasts and celebrations. (Whoa, did you hear the news that we have two new Pope Saints?! Hooray!)

Blooms
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I especially love the Easter season for the Biblical readings that we pray with. We get to hear many of the inspiring stories from the earliest days of Christianity, when it was a brand-new baby religion, dealing with all sorts of identity issues. Wait, are we Jewish or something different!? What do we believe? How do we do this? 

Essentially, after the phenomenal resurrection and then the ascension of Jesus, his earliest followers were left staring at each other with their mouths all agape and a certain question written all over their confused faces: Now what?!  

To help clear up the questions, the Holy Spirit led the way and God provided some strong leadership (Hooray for Peter, the first Pope!). Those with agape faces quickly became very bold and then formed strong, prayerful, compassionate communities. United, they risked their lives for the Gospel. At first, they called themselves the followers of The Way (one of Jesus’ names). They professed in public that Jesus was the Messiah and got more and more people to join them in their faith, even though it was dangerous and deadly for them to do so.

Love was bold and faith was fearless. By the power of the Risen Christ, all sorts of miracles were able to occur through the believers. Some of the stories help us know that the Church was refreshingly human (like the one about the guy who fell asleep during some preaching) and some miracles were just amusing. (Here’s the entertaining article I use to teach my students about the miracles in the Acts of the Apostles.) In addition to the miracles, many Christians were tortured and martyred during this time. Amazingly, this inspired more people to get in on the action.

For sure, when things were just getting started in the early Church, there was no shortage of excitement and mind-blowing news. The believers imitated Christ and were eager to love others boldly, radically and non-violently. This meant they’d be loving and peaceful even if it killed them, literally.  A certain purity and fervor bonded the faith communities and helped the Gospel to spread like wildfire.

A lot has changed in 2,000 years and now the Church doesn’t look much like it did when it began. If the shrugs my students show when I ask them if they would be a Christian even if it were illegal and deadly is any indication, a lot of the original fervor of this faith has burnt out.

So, what happened? Where has all the fervor gone?

Well, Christianity became popular, acceptable and credible. Ask any historian and they’ll likely agree: once a movement enters into the mainstream, it is no longer radical and countercultural. When the unconventional becomes ordinary, it quickly conforms to the culture and gets watered down.

Theologian Greg Boyd does a decent job of summing up how this problem infected Christianity:

Indeed, we certainly need to stop trying to bend Christ into our image.Instead, we need to conform our lives to who Christ truly is: humble, non-violent, powerless, forgiving and generous.

Let us pray that our faith can become as countercultural and courageous as it was for our Christian ancestors. Let us remember that Christ has conquered death and we are free.

Let us be real, resurrection, Easter people who will rise up to Truth: the cross is no longer a symbol of oppression and torture, but a sign of how we are called to love and how we have been loved. We embrace the cross and boldly proclaim the song of our freedom: Jesus lives! Amen! Alleluia!

Christ and His Cross
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

some non-patriotic flag day thoughts

"flag over building" By Julia Walsh, FSPA

I am unpatriotic.  I don’t like flag day or other patriotic celebrations.  I feel like I am repeating myself a little, because I have written about this before (see my comments in this post, especially), but I dislike patriotism. I really, really do. I dislike patriotism so much that it sometimes makes me sick to my stomach. Seriously!

I am not unique for my questions about the tension about between the flag and the cross. A Busted Halo blogger wrote about it today too.

What’s with my dislike of the flag?  I think that it was the peace educator Coleman McCarthy who originally woke me up to how the flag doesn’t fit with the Gospel when I heard him speak about peace while I was on a college service trip to Washington DC.

I remember that Coleman McCarthy boldly acknowledged that no young person should have to choose between the flag and the cross, as they are opposites.  In our culture, though, it seems we glorify both, equally.  We even put the flag right next to the cross by the altar in the front of churches!

The flag has become a symbol of freedom caused by violence.  On the other hand, the cross is a symbol of freedom of caused by nonviolence.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I am a woman of the Gospel.  Sure, I am an American, and I appreciate the freedoms of our democracy.  I am grateful that I have the freedom to publicize these non-patriotic views, for example!  The reality, though, is that my freedom comes from God.  Although I may have more courage to be expressive of my views in this nation, I suspect I would still be vocal about God and the Gospel no matter where I am, and no matter what trouble it might get me in.  But, I am much more loyal to my faith than my country.  I believe that God will love me no matter where I am, no matter what.

I have major concerns about how many Americans turn to the flag and nationalism as a source for comfort and strength in times of turmoil.

I would rather everyone would turn exclusively to the cross, the True source of freedom.  Or, even better, Jesus, Love Incarnate.

p.s. I know this is radical and challenging stuff.  I’ve learned that a trouble about having a message is that people may become uncomfortable and offended, because values are tied to emotions.   Know that I still love you, even if we disagree. Peace!!

oh, God

The solid statues seem to suggest that the horror of the cross is only historical.  We gather in dark churches to remember, and mix the meaning into our mind right along side wars, genocide, crusades and the holocaust.  Black and white photos in the history books tell us to keep telling the story and memorialize the dead.

This cross, though, is different from those other events.  Although it’s historical, it’s also eternal.  Every day we are wounded, nailed, bled, broken, bruised. We’re doing it to ourselves and each other. It happened before, and it’s happening today.  The pain we acknowledge today is as real now as it was then.

Maybe our praying with the cross today matters to our brothers and sisters of history after all.   Maybe this cross is broad and bigger than our mixed up human minds can fathom.  Maybe it can heal the wounds of history and change all humanity.

loving to death

My holy week began in a simple rural church in Iowa. With crowds of farming families I chanted “crucify him, crucify him.”  My voice shook with shame.  It’s not pretend, it’s prayer.  Tears welled up within.  Why did the Church design it that I have to be the one who sentences my love to death?

Stone-cold statues of the stations of the cross lined the peaceful church.  In each, I see a face of Jesus etched with history and sorrow.  Jesus leans over an angel and looks at me in the pew, praying with questions.  Suffering is redemptive, I’ve learned.  Emotions stew within as I think of my love beaten, bruised, bloody, broken.

I sang “Hosanna” and held crisp, spring green branches but knew where the story was going next.  I knew about the cross, the death and the resurrection.  Except for the cooing children, I think we all did. Yet, we’re intense.  It’s ugly to face it: Love nailed to death.

As I gaze upon the cross this week, I shall consider all the hurt that I know.  I have been hurt and I have hurt others, at times I have even hurt myself.  The hurt of all humanity and creation stares back at me from the wood of the cross.

It’s personal and universal.  Personally, I have turned away from my love every time; I’ve allowed my good intentions to get clouded by pride, selfishness and lies.  Together, our social sins continually crush earth and community onto bloody boards.  The body of Christ is wounded.  We are that body.

Our eyes sting with the truth that love hurts.  I ache and I remember that the journey of the cross is the story that we live everyday. These are the moments of our community.  It’s not tidy at all, nor crisp with clarity.

The dust stirs on the statues. Chipped memories acknowledge that redemption began with the incarnation. He came to love, live, set free and therefore die. It’s because His love was so bold and non-violent that he was killed.  I am stuck in the story.

Hurt throbs through the questions.  Do I really understand?  Am I willing to die for what he lived?  Can I? Am I?