I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
About four years ago, before any of us had been encouraged to practice social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic, I moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. My family and friends worried I’d be lonely, but I embraced the peace and quiet and found myself feeling very happy among the trees and lakes. It didn’t take long for me to make friends among my fellow Franciscan sisters, to feel like I was part of a community. About once a month, I drove half the day to visit friends in other parts of the state. Occasionally I would fly to meetings in places like California and South Carolina. I even got in good enough shape to walk the Camino de Compostela in Spain. Plus, social media allowed me to grow and deepen my relationships with many people online.
Overall, my time in the Northwoods was fruitful for me. I wrote a book and completed a master’s degree, all while benefiting from natural beauty and fresh air.
For my master’s project, I researched the problem of loneliness and developed some pastoral responses. What I learned was alarming… [This is the beginning of an essay I recently published in The Christian Century. Continue reading here.]
at first I thought she was a bad joke during a pandemic, St. Corona. a joke like “did you hear that they’re putting the Corona beer next to the Lysol spray in the stores now?” a joke compelling me to groan and roll my eyes at my goofy father breaking the Fourth Commandment, breaking a crown
but it turns out she’s not a joke much of her identity is a mystery yet our tradition says she admitted her faith in Christ when it was illegal to do so to console another Christian, St. Victor, whose eyes were being gouged St. Victor’s torture was meant to be a warning so others would not profess love of Christ instead St. Corona resisted and rebelled and then was tortured too her body stretched between two palm trees and Christ firm in her heart and Christ firm on her lips
St. Corona, pray for us you who are among all the saints you who know the pain of suffering you who know the cost of love you who wear the crown of faith you who show us how to tend to others and be true to ourselves, and true for God St. Corona, pray for us
St. Corona, pray for us and help us be firm in our faith and trust in God and truly love no matter how frightening this pandemic may become help us remember that faith, death, and life are no joke St. Corona, pray for us
It all started when a friend, who ministers in New York, texted me to say that someone in his parish was being tested for the coronavirus (or Covid-19) and everyone who attended liturgy with them could be quarantined. I was alarmed. I realized that the epidemic was no longer abstract and distant. I realized that the time to make decisions had arrived.
I muttered some prayers and then I went online and began reading the news. Updates from the WHO and CDC helped me understand how quickly the virus is spreading, how highly contagious it is, and that it had just been named a pandemic. I also read the recommendation that those with lung disease not venture out for any reason.
Lung disease. My heart sank as I realized I was one of those persons; I am asthmatic. And I live with a sister who is an octogenarian. I felt a responsibility to stay in. So, I told the sisters I live with that I wouldn’t be joining them at the Catholic Sister Week event that night and canceled plans. I hunkered down and settled into acceptance.
Since then, the impacts of this crisis are being felt by nearly everyone. Most of us will not be able to worship with our faith communities this weekend. Many people can’t receive the Blessed Sacrament at Holy Mass. (Catholic services have been canceled all over the country.) The words of Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2007, come to mind: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”
Throughout the United States much has changed quickly. Many events, major and small, have been canceled. Classrooms are now virtual. There’s a shortage of supplies. A national emergency has been declared. Much has come to a standstill. And many people are feeling frantic, vulnerable and fearful. It’s a wild time we’re in.
Wild like the Lenten desert, like the land of desolation where Jesus went to pray and fast before he began his public ministry. (Mark 1:12-13)
We are called to accept the reality of the time we’re in and face unmet desires. We have arrived in the Lenten desert by way of a pandemic.
The Lenten desert is harsh and wild. Much feels unfamiliar and frightening; the sun burns, the water is scarce. You don’t know if you’ll have what you need, or if you will survive.
In the Lenten desert, we thirst for the Truth, for comfort, and peace. We crave it; we’re hungry. We starve for connection, for love, hope and joy. As we do, we can marvel at the mystery, at our shared humanity and common vulnerabilities. We are able to let go of what is beyond our control. We all need God.
In a pandemic and in this sacred season, we can let the silence and solitude speak to us; we can each listen deeply to God. We can pray. We can meditate. We can read Scripture and do spiritual reading. Once we turn inward, we could discover that the desert landscape is beautiful and full of life too.
In this pandemic and in this desert, we discover a sacredness in the slowing, an offering of time. Each of us are given an opportunity to steward the openings we’ve been given. We can notice what is a gift. We can delight in a time to deepen our bond with God.
Surprise, here’s that Lenten retreat you were dreaming about. Here’s that pause you were wanting when ashes were pressed into your forehead and you heard that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
As you pray through this Lenten pandemic, I invite you to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit deep in your heart. Remember that Jesus was ministered by angels in the desert; keep in mind that God is also caring for you in this sacred time.
As you open your heart and mind to love, to the challenge of trust and transformation, may you come to a greater awareness of how deeply loved you truly are. You are sacred. You are valued. You are not alone. You are a beautiful and beloved child of God.
Let’s remember that we’re made for community, that this is the Christian way. Let’s reach out to our friends and neighbors; let’s utilize technology for sacred relationships, for community building. Let’s pray together and help each other through our struggles. Let’s encourage one another and be the beacons of hope that others need to see.
Then, united in love and filled with God’s grace, we will all emerge again one day, more fully alive and in tune with the way of Jesus Christ. We’ll be stronger and healthier. We’ll be more grounded and clear headed. We’ll be able to serve with greater courage and love.
This is a time for renewal, preparation and restoration. This is a holy time.
Here are some offerings for you. Think of this list like finding a well bursting of life-giving water, strengthening you for your time in the desert:
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
During my first visit to a foreign land there was an earthquake, but I was unaware of it until after the fact.
I was an exchange student, staying with a host family in Mexico City. Within the first few days that I was there adjusting to everything — change of language, culture, climate, lifestyle and landscape — the conversation at a family dinner turned to the event. I was asked if I had felt the tremors, if I had noticed the earth move. Only when prompted was I able to recall that I had felt something. Oh yeah, I admitted, but I assumed the ground was shaking from a jackhammer at the nearby construction site, I said. The earthquake was small, and nothing around me was familiar. I wasn’t surprised I that I didn’t notice the earthquake.
I’ve been in religious life for over 14 years now. It’s barely a scratch in the mystery of time. Compared to decades of love and service offered by my elders in community, who have lived vowed life for 50 or more years, I am a beginner. Yet, I am adjusted to the culture. I am familiar with the landscape. I am noticing the earthquakes.
On Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, I sat in front at my laptop in Chicago. Along with other members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, I watched as our community president, Sr. Eileen McKenzie, stood at a podium in our dining room inside our motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and read an announcement. Familiar sisters were at dining room tables in the room with Sister Eileen, listening in, and several of us joined the meeting virtually. Through the window near me, heavy fog encircled the bare trees.
Through my headphones, I heard Sister Eileen tell us that our 141-year-old shared practice of round-the-clock adoration was about to drastically change… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Stress warning: Content includes suicidal thoughts.
What would you say if a friend with no religious affiliation asked you the simple question: How can I find God?
This is the scenario posed to the young and the old, the famous and the not-famous and those of a variety of religious preferences who contribute their voices to the book “How can I find God? The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question,” edited by Father James Martin, S.J.
The answers vary, as does the life experience of those who Martin questions. But a few themes do stand out, including the consideration that God is found in the people around us, the invisible love of God made visible, and in our own life experiences. The book also begs a poignant question: are we finding God or being found by God? Joan Chittister says, “No one can help a fish to find the ocean. The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.” She is proclaiming that God is all around us, already finding us, already in our grasp.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it more directly: “What do I do now that God has found me? … Such a God is not easily found because we cannot find that which as near to us as our next breath and as far from us as the silence that surrounds all language.” God, I know, has already found me, but may also remain elusive as mystery.
Maybe that’s because seeking and finding always go together. As Huston Smith says, “Finding God is not like finding a mislaid object, which ends the search.” Gregory of Nyssa put this point definitively: “To seek God is to find him; to find God is to seek him.”
I love these answers! They make me seek God even more. God has already found me and I wake up to that reality. I cannot find God like I find my lost hairbrush, because the mystery of God cannot be contained, and in the finding I discover more seeking. God is in the daily reality of my own life, in my particulars and in yours.
How would you answer this basic question: How can I find God?
I find God in my daily experiences and in the people around me, but I especially find God in suffering. Maybe suffering is the moment when I stop pretending everything is okay, become more honest and vulnerable and allow God to find me.
When I was 20, everything stopped making sense. I don’t remember the immediate event that caused it but I was curled up on the bed and I started to scream. I screamed so long that they called the college campus security to check on me. As I was screaming, I had a little conversation with God.
Me: God, I don’t think I can go on any longer. I think I need to die.
God: That way out is cheating. It’s not really an option.
Me: Then what can I do?
And then all the words stopped and I had a vision. I saw lava flowing freely. Then I saw lava crusted over. Like a video I had seen of a volcano exploding underwater, the fiery, red-hot river turned quickly to a black crust when it hit the cold water. The vision became an immediate knowing, the deepest truth I have ever known in my life. There is a place or time where God’s love flows endlessly. Here on Earth, that love gets blocked and crusted over. We are here on Earth to learn the not-so-simple lesson of how to love. This learning comes with the assurance that God’s love is holding us even through such pain.
That truth has stayed with me ever since. When I get lost and discouraged, when my lava-love gets crusted over, I know God’s love is stronger, holding me ‘till I can get found again. The people who love me help me to see God, especially when I cannot do it on my own.
Once, when I was in a deep depression, a sister in my community threw a lifeline to me. Knowing that I was having a hard time loving myself or feeling love of any kind, she said, “Let us love you until you are able to do it yourself again.” She and my other sisters, my family and my friends loved me back to life. They became the face of God to me.
I think that Allison Janik, a seventh grader, says its best: “If you talk to babies and they don’t talk back, you still know they love you. I think that’s how it is with God.” That’s how it is with God: an endless love-like a river of lava, even when you can’t hear or feel that love. Like the fish in the ocean, God is all around us.
Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.
Throughout the United States we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday next week.
Some of us will attend parades or prayer services to feed our souls with the words of good speakers and the sound of great music. Many will participate in the National Day of Service. Others will watch television specials or talk to children about the goodness of cultural diversity. Maybe we’ll eat soul food or listen to Gospel music. Or perhaps we’ll learn about the current landscapes of inequality and injustice and loudly say “Amen” at the end of every prayer for social change.
Yet, I imagine that many (most?) of us will likely let the day go by without much consideration of why Dr. King was martyred, why we’re honoring him. Some of us will savor the benefit of a three-day weekend by shopping, binge-watching and catching up on sleep.
I get it. Our lives are packed and we keep a busy pace. Laboring for the reign of God with all our might in our little corners of the world wears us out. It takes a lot from us to work to make peace and justice as common as air. We’re tired, we’re spent. We need rejuvenation to fight the good fight day in and day out.
Yes, we need rest and renewal. But I would like to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not the day. That’s what the weekly sabbath is for. (Remember that commandment God gave us?)
So, here’s what I propose. It’s what I plan to do. I will empower King’s legacy, enable it to change me this time around. I will carry it with me through 2020 with less inadequate activisim and more openness to conversion. And, I invite you to join me in my simple plan.
Step 1.) I will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings or speeches. This might be his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. If I can’t read the speech carefully and studiously, I’ll listen to it. And, if I don’t have the time or energy to read an entire speech, I will read previous Messy Jesus Business posts dedicated to his legacy or at least consider some of the following quotes on war and peace (included here):
More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. “Don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have the compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Strength to Love, 13 April 1960
I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968
Step 2.) I will imagine a society constructed on the principles that King proclaimed and notice where I am challenged and disturbed. (After all, if I want to change the world, I must start by changing myself!)
I will pray, journal and/or do a lot of thinking related to King’s vision, looking to see how I get in the way of peace and justice flourishing. Here’s some questions I might start with: How would the circumstances of 2020 look differently if we took the principles of nonviolence to heart? What role could I play to dismantle racism and inequality? How do I need to change my mind, heart and behaviors so that the life I am living demonstrates that I truly believe love is the strongest power? How is the Spirit inviting me to grow and change so that I help create a world where there is more peace and justice for people of every race, class and creed?
Step 3.) In response to my reflection, I will envision myself changing my behaviors and then make a plan.
Perhaps I could explore new groups to join (like I found on this website and this one too), find upcoming meetings or calls to action and offer my help. (I’ve attended many events over the years, but have rarely offered more than my participation.) Maybe I need to learn more about issues like gentrification or white privilege that currently plague the poor and marginalized. Maybe I’ll write the president or call my legislators. I’ll look at my calendar and give myself a deadline for a new action.
Whatever I do, I’ll pray about it. I’ll invite the Spirit to guide me, work through me and show me where I am being called. Because however I am called to change it will be a struggle. I need God’s help. We all do.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the light of the epiphany star and the glowing headlines this week, the Spirit is convincing me that it’s time for us to get back to basics, to recenter on the core values of the Christian faith.
It seems that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, the truth is muddled with propaganda, commentary, and commotion. We hear leaders defend violence and division. We hear justifications for assassinations and tearing families apart. Deep in our bodies,e feel the chaos, the polarities and the pain of this time. We try to catch our breath in the middle of our busy days. To remain calm and loving.
Meanwhile, the trenches of sorrow and pollution are carved deeper into human community and every part of the planet. People are hurting, dying. Species are going extinct. Disasters and violence are damaging entire ecosystems, destroying civilizations. It’s no wonder that many of us feel confused, stressed and worked up. In this atmosphere, despondency comes naturally.
Yet, we’re Christians, disciples of Jesus Christ: the Love of God in Human form. We follow a teacher and friend who modeled for us how to live out the Gospel, to be people of Good News no matter how tough things get.
The Gospel principles are pretty straight-forward, too: Compassion. Mercy. Nonviolence. Unity. Trust in God. Faith. Community. Being nonjudgmental. Kindness. Forgiveness. Peacemaking. Prayer. Relationships. Love.
Although remaining grounded in the basics gets messy, it’s essential that we do. It keeps us centered on Jesus and helps us to be part of the Church we dream of, that we are called to create.
When I am striving to get back to the basics, I find it helpful to return to the Word of God, to pray with the Scriptures that say it straight. Perhaps it will help you, too.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. — Colossians 3:12-13
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. — 1 Peter 3:9
Trust in God
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. — Proverbs 3:5-6
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. — James 2:14-26
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching. — Romans 12:3-13
Judge not, that you be not judged. — Matthew 7:1
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. — Ephesians 4:32
But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. — Matthew 6:15
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. — Matthew 5:43-44
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. — Philippians 4:6
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Peter 4:8
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. — 1 Thessalonians 5:11
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. — Ephesians 4:2-3
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. — Luke 6:34
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” — Mark 12:29-31
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. — 1 John 4:8
* * *
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remain rooted in the basics, no matter how tough the times may be.
Let us refuse to give into the temptations and avoid the traps and tensions of our time. We are called to be children of light, to shine God’s love counter-culturally. Let us be people of community and compassion, remembering we’re in this together, we need each other.
Together, as one, by the grace of God, we can be rooted in the basics and on the right track, praying along the way.
God of Love and Mercy, When the chaos and the division of the world tempts us to turn away from you and your teachings, we turn to you for guidance and grace. With your help, may we remain centered on you and your love. May we not become muddled or mixed up by pain and heartache or lose hope and faith. We want to walk as children of your light, as people who share your mercy and kindness in every circumstance. Have mercy on us, oh God, and help us to love like you. We pray this through Christ our Lord, our Way, Truth and Life. Amen.
It’s a gray day, one of those types where the clouds hang heavy and seem to block out all sunlight. Inside a cozy lamp-lit room, I am sitting in a circle of ministers training to be spiritual directors and practicing the art of listening. Around the circle, person after person tells a story from their life that is personal.
With each telling, I notice layers of transformation and transition; I hear about the wonder of discovery and the lightness of hope. A phrase comes to mind: the goodness of gray. I jot the words into my notebook and open my heart wide. Although this happened weeks before Advent, “the goodness of gray” remained a constant suggestion, a companion in the season of searching, longing and waiting.
We are people who long for simplicity, who often ache for clearly defined borders and lines. Even though we may know that complexity and conversion is healthy and natural, we are comfortable with what’s predictable, what we know, what feels safe.
There may have been times when answers were easy, when we knew what to expect. For some it was the patterns of childhood, the days of easy answers and comfort zones. For others, we found solace in the rituals of our religion or what was considered proper and polite. Our memories might be hazy, but nostalgia convinces that there was a time when much stood strong on solid ground. Elected leaders compromised. Polarities were unusual. Religious life was defined. Democracy was functional. Unity and peace were valued and Churches were places of refuge and calm.
Now, we don’t know about much. Nearly everything we are familiar with — from the structures of Church and society, to technology and the ecosystems sustaining us — seems to be in transition, in flux. What we forget, though, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]