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

Made to make God more present

I am in a dim hospital room, standing at the foot of the bed, a small video camera gripped in my hands. I am trying to hold the camera steady and silence my sobs while I watch one of the most incredible, beautiful scenes I have ever observed: the entrance of a new child into the world.

The woman birthing this child has asked me to be here and record this sacred moment. Before today, I’ve accompanied her to several doctor appointments and listened to her talk about her dreams. I am trying to support her through a lot of changes; she is formerly homeless and now a resident at a transitional living program, Tubman House in Sacramento, California, where I am serving as a Jesuit Volunteer.

The year is 2005, and I have recently begun an application to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Doing so means moving toward a public renouncement of…

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

 

FreeImages.com

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

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

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery

About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.

During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.

Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?

With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.

I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…

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

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

Challenged to trust in Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pausing, breathing, reposting, replying as a member of the body of Christ

“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  This quote, attributed to author and theologian Ian Maclaren, has been tossed around a lot. I think I first saw it memed on FacebookFacebook-logo and most recently I heard it on Krista Tippet’s On Being. It is simple and straightforward and frankly, kind enough, to come off as a bit trite. I am reticent to be found quoting phrases I’ve seen more than once pasted over the image of a sunset, or a silhouetted figure with their head in their hands. But this one, I’m going to stand behind. This one is not to be dismissed. It is, in fact, particularly handy when one is scrolling through their Facebook feed—so full of both the beautiful and ugly, in image and word—and precariously near falling victim to impulse replying. With hand hovering over the keyboard, prefrontal cortex poised, quickly conjuring up a tart reply to something that’s pressed the “angry”, “offended” or “I’ve been staring at a screen too long and just cannot” button inside, “be kind…” is a blessed mantra to retrieve and reflect with.

This is an important phrase indeed, not only when tooling around social media—that ripe field for impulsive seed to be scattered and bear sour fruit—but really when confronted with any of the issues and characters that compose our political and social climate at present. One issue I’ve been skirting around for fear of being immediately exhausted and annoyed (and saddened and discouraged and bewildered) by is the hotly-debated issue of bathroom access in public spaces. I use “debated” very generously as, especially if Facebook is your primary news source (I confess, it is mine of late), the content of what you are seeing or reading seldom has enough substance or anything like a fact traceable to a source considered actual information (let alone insight).

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised and grateful to stumble upon a Baptist minister who, when confronted with this issue, was self-aware and open enough to recognize that he had very little actual information about what it meant to be a transgender person (let alone how such persons might be effected by laws about bathroom use). Rather than leap to a reactive response based on what he might assume should be his moral stance as a conservative pastor, he paused and started to ask questions. “I don’t know much about transgender issues,” he admitted, “but I’m trying to learn.” It is in the trying to learn that this man reveals Christ to us more than any memes throwing out Scripture reference or rants about how our society is descending into chaos. And it is with Christ-like invitation that he challenges his readers with the question “How much do you really know about this subject beyond all the screaming headlines” while gently reminding us, that more than political posturing and religious rigidity, this is about “real people and real families.” Have we calmly considered who those people might be? Have we done our homework about what risks are real and what are inflated in order to manipulate an emotional reaction?

Asking questions with the intention of hearing and learning and desiring to understand is a radical, rare, brave and vulnerable act. In a prayer often (albeit incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis, the writer beseeches God that they might direct their energy toward seeking to “understand, rather than to be understood.” In doing so we are opened to the possibility of love; our being is expanded to receive others (even others who are different or confusing or who we genuinely disagree with). It’s a prayer, ultimately, to be more like Jesus, who walked among strangers, sinners and enemies and so often found in them disciples, followers and friends.

What this rant is about, more than anything, is both how we respond to difference and how we behave when confronted with information startling, offensive or frightening to us. If I intend to take in and respond to information as my best self and as a member of the body of Christ, then I find I need to pause, not only before I repost or reply but also to evaluate what is being fed me. Is there any nutrition here or is it just tantalizing candy, packaged to trigger my cravings, fears, anxieties, longings? Is it just empty calories that will leave me full but malnourished or worse; toxins that once consumed will poison my point of view and diminish my capacity to live and love well? I need to ask myself (and I invite you to do the same) “is this designed to heal or to hurt?”

hand-laptop
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

“Does this seek to unify or divide?”

“Is this truthful?”

“Is this merciful?”

Imagine Jesus or, if you prefer, imagine the kindest person you know sitting next to you. Wait to see if they smile, nod, and reach over to press “send.”

 

More than boy-crazy

“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”

My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.

That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.

I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….

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

Photo credit: “Journey Through the Bible, WordPress”

My journey into my family of grandmas

What will I be when I grow up? It’s a familiar question. As a happy and energetic farm girl in Iowa, I frequently imagined what my life would look like as an adult.

While I helped my mother with chores or ran around exploring the woods and the farm buildings, I dreamed about how I might run a household if I ever were a mother some day. I looked forward to when I would be able to do adult things and make my own choices. I saw myself acting a lot like my own mother and grandmother: gardening, cooking and baking in a big farmhouse and offering care to a lot of happy and playful children.

I also dreamed about being a teacher, a writer or maybe a missionary in another country. I did have a vague idea that I might like to be a Catholic sister, based largely on my love of films like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” but my childhood dreaming never included the picture of me actually being a nun.

Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/
Photo credit: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/

 

What remained a constant in my childhood thoughts about being an adult, however, was an experience of relating to a large, loving family. This makes sense. I never knew any Catholic sisters as a child, but…

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

 

Motherhood and Not-So-Simple Simplicity

By guest blogger  Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I always used to find it challenging to live out the value of simplicity in a contemporary Western context.  Now, as a mom, I find it nearly impossible.

I am blessed to be the mother of a twenty-month-old daughter and another little girl due in two months.  I desperately want them to grow up in a home that honors and reflects the values of Jesus — values which I believe are oftentimes in direct conflict with the images of traditional domestic success in this country.  And yet, as a mom who is entirely in love with and predictably devoted to her children, I struggle to disregard the pressures and compulsions of the mommy/baby industry. I want to live simply, but I also want to provide my daughters with “the best…” (insert noun here: nutrition, cognitive development-enhancing toys, opportunities in life, etc.).

From the moment I found out that I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff associated with having a baby.  Merely setting foot in Babies“R”Us made my head spin: playpens, bouncers, bottles, strollers, electric swings, toys, books, CDs, DVDs –how much of this stuff did my baby actually need?  Having lived among babies in Africa and Latin America, my assumption was “not much.”

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Photo courtesy of MorgueFile

For the first few months of my daughter’s life, my husband and I were immensely proud of the fact that we didn’t own a crib.  Initially, we made use of a thrift store bassinet, and when our baby outgrew that, we simply put her on blankets on the floor.  “See,” we thought with satisfaction, “people who fill their homes with baby stuff just aren’t trying hard enough to live simply.”  But then she started rolling.  Virtually overnight, I went from spurning the entire concept of a crib to declining a free crib because it didn’t adhere to current safety regulations (even though I knew four children had happily slept in it throughout infancy).  I wonder: would Jesus consider that to be conscientious parenting or lamentable wastefulness?  I may feel a sense of righteous indignation at the ways in which our consumerist culture preys upon a mother’s desire to provide the best for her children, but I can hardly deny that we are easy prey!

Even without being goaded by marketers, my own weaknesses cause me to fall short of the ideals of “Simple Living.”  Before my daughter’s birth, I was delighted to receive a homemade diaper wipe kit — a kit I only ended up using once.  When she began eating solids, I planned to prepare all of her baby food from fresh ingredients — but laziness, in the form of many store-bought jars of pureed concoctions, prevailed.  And, most scandalously, I confess that I never did figure out cloth diapering.  Our monthly delivery of disposable diapers (“environmentally-friendly” though they may be) always triggers a fair amount of hand-wringing guilt in me.

As my daughter grows older and we anticipate the birth of our second child, the issues surrounding Simple Living and parenthood grow ever more complex.  My husband and I frequently remind ourselves that we want to live our lives and raise our children in a way that would only make sense in light of the Gospel.  But what does that mean?  Given our limited finances, how do we balance our commitment to charitable giving with our commitment to our children?  Right now, those questions arise when we consider whether or not to spend extra money on organic food or a better stroller, but I know that tougher decisions loom ahead.  Do we pay for music lessons?  Do we enroll our kids in private school?  Do we travel abroad with them?  For me, it all boils down to a basic conundrum:  How much is justifiable in the name of providing for our children, especially when one of the things we’re trying to provide is the value of Simple Living?

If you know the answer to that question, please tell me!  I suspect, though, that this is one of those opaque moral areas requiring perpetual personal discernment. I’ve discovered that the terrain of parenting changes abruptly and dramatically with each new stage of my daughter’s development.  I must constantly re-adjust the lens through which I view my vocation as a mom in order to stay focused on what is most essential to me: giving glory to God through this gift of motherhood.

Daily, in matters both trivial and profound, I fail to do so.  But I take comfort in the words of Scripture: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

“Approach God’s throne of grace with boldness.”  I take this message to heart.  A certain sense of boldness is necessary for me to approach the Eucharistic table each week, laden as I am with a disposable-diaper-clad toddler and the weight of so many daily failures!  Yet the God of mercy and grace invites me to come and be nourished… and so I do, confident that the only way I will ever achieve authentic simplicity is with and in the One who simply loves.

This week’s guest blogger, Nicole Steele Wooldridge, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors (in body and spirit) in Chicago, Ill.  She now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, and very pregnant belly.  She spends her days chasing a toddler, working at a community college, and struggling to live out this thing called discipleship.

Discernment via Reality TV

Last Sunday night I joined about nine million other Americans in a guilty pleasure past time—the season finale of The Bachelorette with Emily Maynard. First off, I have to say that in no shape or form do I ever suggest dating more than one person at a time. I also would strongly suggest against signing a TV contract which includes the clause that they may humiliate you or put you in death-defying situations. The whole set up sounds like a very bad idea.

But I did tune in. And I think I actually caught a genuine moment and the lesson to use your deepest wisdom to seek always after the eternal.

To catch you up, Emily, the single mom of a bright six-year-old, had narrowed down her choices to two men–Arie and Jef. She introduced them both, separately, to her family. Then she became quite frustrated with her family when they wouldn’t tell her who to pick. Though her father did add, “ I don’t believe you can be in love with two men.” And her mother (Ah-Ha, a voice of reason!) suggested that now was not the moment for an engagement. Emily was looking to outside sources for a sign and not into her deepest heart.

Ultimately, she chose Jef. Why? For one thing, she told Arie that while they might really last for a year or two she did not feel that they were made forever. With Jef she could see an eternity together. Also, breaking all bachelorette models, Emily and Jef do not plan on cohabitating before the wedding and are starting their life together by building wells in Africa.

So, not completely unlike Emily’s struggle to look away from the bright lights and the cameras to see what was in her heart, how do we discern our vocation? How do we hear what God is calling us to and not just what makes us happy or is most convenient? Ask a priest you know or a long-married couple and often they will tell you there are no fireworks in the sky, but the still-small voice of God in the deepest recess of our hearts. Our call is discerned slowly in trust and love. Not following just the whirlwind of emotions or the practicality of our reason, we must reach beyond this to follow the wisdom of our hearts. And once we are truly there to persevere in the hard work of relationships and ultimate trust in God. May God Bless us all!

You can see a little bit of the Bachelorette Finale here: