I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.
I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.
I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.
Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.
I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…
In the book “A Wrinkle in Time,” Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tells the children, “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
Last weekend, the global community of Christian writers quaked in shock as we absorbed the news that the influential author Rachel Held Evans, 37, had died. I didn’t know her but I admired her from afar and have had her four books on my “hope to read soon” pile for some time. The grief is heavy and hard.
And then, this week’s school shooting in Colorado took another young saint, Kendrick Ray Castillo, away from us much too soon. I’m horrified and heartbroken that school shootings are so common in the United States that we are nearly numb to the news. God have mercy on us for the wrongs that we accept. It’s awful that we allow young lives to end without alarm. It’s more than shameful.
Meanwhile, my friends in Cameroon try to survive horrific violence. Weather patterns, habitats, landscapes and populations are shifting. After being attacked in sanctuaries — places of worship — human bodies are bloodied and hurting. People are running for their lives. Families are being torn apart. Children are going hungry. Our loved ones are sick, some die way too soon. And, it’s hard to know what’s happening to democracy … but it doesn’t seem good either. The litany of heartbreak could be much longer; this is only a little list of what is making me feel so sad.
I turn to God and pray “WHY?” As I do, I often find myself remembering Mrs. Whatsit’s words. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
If often seems to me that everything is in flux around us, and the transition doesn’t feel good. I’m confident that much of the turmoil, loss and pain is a result of rapid change and our inability to adjust, allow and accept how newness is emerging, even when we don’t feel ready. The shifts are hard and we feel lost in it all, so we grasp for what we can control: our convictions and tribal tendencies. Some cling to the cross, while others cling to their guns. We look around for like-minded folks who can reinforce our opinions and ideas but, as we end up in warring camps, this isn’t helpful either. God help us.
As we bicker and brawl, let us not lose sight of the paradox of Christian discipleship: God asks for our trust and hope, while we each play our small, merciful part.
Yet we wonder why. It’s only natural for us to have many questions, to hunger for explanations when we’re disturbed by the chaos and turmoil and how quickly the world is changing. When everything from our values to our comfort zones seems to be up for grabs, we pray over and over. “WHY?!”
“Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
I am reminded over and over that I must resist the temptation to keep God in a neat and tidy box. I must not make God into an image I like, I must get to know God and allow myself to be made into God’s image and likeness. I must avoid trying to subject my suggestions to the Creator of the universe, upon the Keeper of mystery. I must remember that I am only a small human who has no idea what the big picture is, who can’t even guess how the mystery might unfold. It’s not my job to know what God is up to.
My job is to remain faithful to the Gospel, to the insistence from Jesus that we build communities based on mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. Each day I need to show up and do my part. I need to love the people that God puts in my path, live simply, serve joyfully and pray deeply. I need to broaden my awareness and deepen my contemplation. And through these acts, I hope that I am helping to build up what’s meant to be and tearing down what’s corrupt and destructive.
I have to trust that God is in control. I have to trust that God is with us in the heartache and pain of chaos and confusion. I have to trust that God’s taking care of the big picture. I have to listen to the Spirit and allow God to make all things new.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. — Isaiah 43:19
Maybe, when it comes to being a faithful Christian, it’s not our job to understand. Rather, we get to keep showing up ready to love and lean on each other. It’s the only way I know how to move forward into the mystery, the only way I know how to get through the pain. With all of you.
I was 10 when it happened. I fell in love with silence.
I was looking for my own church. My mom would drop me off at places of worship for different denominations — Catholic, Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. I think I also went to the synagogue. I would attend a service and no one would talk to me or even notice I was there. One day I went to my friend’s Quaker meeting. It was a group of about six-to-eight people that met in the living room of a house. The worship service was purely an hour of silence. If someone felt lead they could speak a simple message, but a meeting that small was mostly filled with a lot of silence. At the end of the meeting, one of the men rose from his seat and started to shake hands. Then everyone shook hands, exchanging a peace, breaking the silence.
And an amazing thing happened. Adults looked me in my eyes. I felt seen. I felt recognized as a spiritual seeker. I found my spiritual home. I stayed and became quite active in the Society of Friends. I served on committees as a teenager and helped to plan a national gathering. I attended Quaker camps, a Quaker boarding school and eventually a Quaker college where I majored in religious studies. All along, I was falling in love with silence and learning to pray beyond words.
Today that continues. Silent contemplative prayer is part of my daily life. As a Catholic and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, I am now immersed in a prayer form similar to what I discovered when I was 10.
Since August 1, 1878, FSPA has practiced the constant prayer called perpetual adoration. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, we sit in silence and pray beyond words. We adore. We give thanks. We feel our own littleness. We find a peace in our heart that remains with us long after we rise from our seats. We bring that stillness and burning love we find in adoration into our daily lives and all we do.
I have to admit; sometimes I do not want to go to my hour of adoration. Sometimes I am tired or bored. It isn’t always all sweetness and light. But that is okay. That is the practice. I get there. I settle in, and slowly I become still. Every hour is different. It is a relationship. I am spending time with my beloved. Nothing stays the same. Sometimes the hour flies by and I find I have spent the entire 60 minutes in total stillness, have not moved a bit. I might be really involved in praying for others, or start to read a prayer, get caught on a word and the whole world opens up. It is a very intimate living time that changes with each experience. Somehow it never gets old.
Thomas Merton says that “Contemplation knows God by seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by him … Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the real within all that is real.”
It is this awakening that I appreciate in those moments of quiet. Here is a video in which I describe seven simple steps to practicing prayer beyond words.
May you be blessed to discover this awakening in your own life!
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, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
It’s not exactly an Easter song (it’s the Canticle of Zachariah from Luke 1), but it has been in my head since Sunday morning.
Maybe because it’s a joyful tune. Or possibly because of the promise of peace and justice. Anyway, it’s super fun and I love it!
God knows, with all the heartache that remains — especially after the terrorism in Sri Lanka — that we ought to cling to our hope for peace and justice. Hope, peace and justice are Easter promises for us to celebrate.
The body of Christ has risen from the grave! This mystery, beyond what our minds can comprehend, is amazing and exciting. Joyful music is fitting for the Easter season. Alleluia!
The body of Christ has risen from the grave! We are that body. We are risen and sent out to go be Christ’s hands of healing and compassion, to offer God’s peaceful presence. This is the Easter mission for all of us. I believe this with all my heart, and this is the conviction that motivates me to serve and share — to live the Gospel no matter the cost or struggle.
The body of Christ has risen from the grave! This is a core belief of our Christian faith. Jesus Christ’s resurrected body walked and talked, ate and drank among his friends and followers even after he was killed. Nothing can destroy the goodness of God, the power of Jesus Christ. Now the doors of death are open to all of us, and we are liberated and free to join him for all eternity. This is what we believe. This is what we proclaim. This is the faith of our Church. And it is true, Good News!
The body of Christ has risen from the grave! Yes, it’s what I believe and proclaim. But, when I am honest, I can admit I don’t know what it means to believe. I am not sure what it means to be a woman directed by my faith, really.
Does the belief put a certitude in my mind? Certainly not.
Does the belief put a confidence in my steps? Some days, but not usually.
Is the belief a warm, comfortable feeling that clears out doubts and struggle? Rarely. Practically never, actually.
So, what’s a woman like me to do? A woman who is a mixture of hope and heartache, belief and doubt, joy and confusion? How am I supposed to embrace the mysteries, the wonders and love of God’s goodness, even if I am not always feeling sure and all together?
Here’s what I am learning: belief is a matter of the heart, not the mind.
God’s word offers me insight, something I am leaning on:
For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. – Romans 10:10
Only recently did I learn this Bible verse. And when I did, I felt invited, compelled: I need to get out of my head. I need to listen to my heart, not my mind. My brain has been taught to be critical, cynical. I have a tendency to overthink, to overanalyze. This is not faith — it’s thinking.
Discipleship of Jesus, being Christ’s body, invites me to tune into my heart, not my brain. In my heart, I know that Jesus lives, that Jesus Christ has risen! In my heart I feel God close and present, compassionate and directing me onward. It is in my heart that I learn to love like Jesus, to be present to others who are suffering and act as an agent of peace. Alleluia!
This is the Easter mission, this is who we all are called to be: people with their hearts burning, as we walk along, not understanding, on the way. Like the first disciples, those who were on the road to Emmaus, I might catch a clue later, after I walk faithfully a little more.
Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” – Luke 24: 31-32
This is what belief is to me: faithfully walking forward tuned into God’s mystery, tuned into my heart, burning with love. Alleluia!
In my imagination, I am a girl of 10 years old, playing tag with my older brother. We are running through the stone streets of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. My calloused feet are well-accustomed to the alleyways and paths, to the steps and hills; I know my way around and am familiar to the rhythms inside these city walls. I know all the best hiding spots and my body is small; I have an advantage over my older brother and can easily jump out to tag him when he runs by.
The crowds swarm through the streets, many people still lingering after yesterday’s Passover feast. They have sacrificed much to come pray near the wonder of the temple, I know, but its might and grandeur is ordinary for me. I see it every day. The pilgrims are in my way, they’re making it tough to watch for my brother. Hiding under a cart, I think a bit about this. I see another criminal in chains walk down the street, guided by guards most likely to his trial. Some rabbis walk in front, their faces scowling.
Something is strange about this man. Compared to others, he doesn’t seem to be wicked at all. He isn’t tense or yelling insults at anyone near by. He isn’t cursing the guards. He actually seems to be loving everyone around him, to be at prayer, to be in peace. He seems like he is peace.
I no longer feel interested in tricking my brother, of outsmarting him in our game. I am much more curious about this strange criminal. I decide I am done, and I will meet my brother at home later. I crawl out of my hiding spot and join the crowd, a group of adults who are walking with the strange man, looking gloomy. Some are crying, softly. I can tell from their accents that they are from out of town. Galileans, perhaps?
There is something unusual going on here. I feel drawn into the crowd that I was annoyed with moments ago. I begin to follow along, moving down the road. I tuck my body between the adults, trying to get a look at the man who seems so mysterious, so different. I catch a glimpse of his face and notice how brave he looks.
I wonder if this is the man I heard my mom and grandma murmuring about, Jesus the Galilean, who came to town the other day. People gathered in the street yelled out “Hosanna!” They cheered and waved palm branches. It was a bit of a counterprotest to Pilate who came into town from the other direction, on a big horse, horns announcing his arrival. At least I heard mom say something like that — she was so excited when she talked about it. My grandma laughed in my mom’s face. “Just another one thought to be the Messiah! Ha!”
The chains around his arms and ankles don’t seem to bothering this man now. “Who is he?” I ask a lady wearing blue, her face twisted with concern. She doesn’t really look at me, her gaze is fixed on him. “Jesus, from Nazareth,” she whispers. So it is the Galilean! Why is he in so much trouble now?
I’ve never attended a trial before. I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to enter along with the rest of the crowd. I think about this as I follow the people to the place where Pontius Pilate stays when he’s around. “He has to maintain the illusion of control …” I think how my dad mutters this every time Pilate comes into the city to meet with the rabbis and the troops. I don’t really know what Dad means. I do know, though, that I doubt they care about me or my family at all.
The man, Jesus, stands still. He isn’t grinning but he continues to seem content, as if he is fine with what’s going on. Pilate comes outside to the courtyard where we all are gathered. He looks bothered, like he’d rather be doing something else. He speaks with some of the rabbis — are they the chief priests from the temple? — who I can see now are angrily directing the guards.
“We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Christ, a king!” one of the rabbis says this loudly to Pilate, more like an announcement than a complaint.
Pilate turns to Jesus who still stands quietly, wearing his chains. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks him.
“You say so.” Jesus almost seems unworried as he says this, so calmly.
Pilate then speaks loudly to all of us. “I find this man not guilty,” he says.
One of the priests seems really upset. “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began, even to here!!”
“He’s a Galilean?” Pilate asks. I see that the people are nodding, muttering “yes.” I feel myself nodding too, for I knew the answer as well.
“Well then, take him to Herod! I heard he’s in town now too!” Pilate says.
The chief priests seem frustrated, but they apparently agree that this case falls under Herod’s judgement. They tell the guards to go bring Jesus to Herod, and all of us in the crowd follow along through the streets, past the market. We can’t go inside and see Herod along with Jesus, but I want to know what’s going to happen so I stay close; I wander through a nearby street.
For awhile I join some other children who are chasing birds. When a lady sees that I am admiring the cakes she’s baking over her fire, she offers me one. It is steamy and delicious, almost as good as my mom’s. I thank her with a big smile.
I didn’t wander too far away from Herod’s place, so I could hear the screams when Jesus reemerges. I run over and see that someone has forced some strange clothes upon Jesus. He now wears resplendent robes instead of his simple grubby clothes from before. He’s a little swollen and bloody too. Were they beating him? Some lady in the crowd looks really upset; she was probably the one who screamed. Herod was making fun of him! I doubt Jesus did anything to incite it. Why are people being so mean to him? I am upset too.
The guards begin pulling Jesus forward; the chief priests are close by. The whole crowd starts moving through the streets again. Where are we going now? Oh, back to Pilate’s place, it seems. Some of the people in the crowd are muttering. Are they planning something?
When we get back to Pilate, he stands next to Jesus and makes a big announcement, gesturing to the peaceful man as he speaks. “You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
As soon as Pilate says this, the people begin to shout. “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!!” So this is what they were planning! They keep shouting it over and over. I am surprised that they’d want Barabbas instead of the gentle man, Jesus. I heard about Barabbas. He was leading all sorts of violent protests, trying to take over. He even killed some people! “Not a man to mess with!” My dad had said.
Pilate seems as confused as I am about their request. “Really? Well, if I do that, what do you want me to do with Jesus?” he asks the people around me.
“Crucify him! Crucify him!” the people all around me are shouting.
Pilate looks at Jesus. Jesus still stands tall, bravely accepting his fate. He pauses before he speaks again. “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore, I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
“Crucify him! Crucify him!” Everyone shouts this phrase over and over. The chant is catching. I am surprised to notice I am yelling the words too, even though I don’t really know what I am saying.
As we shout, I watch Pilate shrug his shoulders and talk to the guards. After a while, a gruff man –Barabbas? — appears among us, looking smug. The chief priests and guards lead the way, and the crowd moves through the streets again. As I follow along, I start to feel frightened. What are they going to do with Jesus?
When I realize that we are moving toward Golgotha I remember that Mom and Dad told me, their tones haunting — that I am not allowed to go there. I start to wonder if I have been away from my home long enough. I am starting to get hungry for lunch.
When I see that they are making Jesus carry a cross, I figure out they are going to kill him. My body clenches in horror. I feel scared and upset. I want to be close to my Mom. Jesus is so peaceful and brave. He seems so good and kind! Why do they want to kill him?
He went out and began to weep bitterly. – Luke 22:62
During the Gospel at Palm Sunday Mass, I noticed the emotions expressed by Jesus’ disciples – even when they failed to respond to the call to love and remain faithful. I wondered if I am faithful to Christ. I wondered if I am responding to Christ’s call to advocate for people far and near who suffer because of injustice, war, violence and discrimination.
Photo taken in the dining room at Andre House in Phoenix, Arizona
Do I allow Christ to suffer without notice? Am I with Christ in pain and injustice? Do I remain by his side?
I wanted to weep bitterly, like Peter, for my failures to love.
I thought, especially, of my friends in Cameroon.
The past several months, I have been involved in a committee with other FSPA sisters and our affiliates regarding our friendship with the Franciscan Tertiary Sisters in Cameroon. What began as a committee to discern how to continue our relationship with our friends after the Common Venture officially ended last summer turned into acts of solidarity with our friends who are caught in a political crisis.
Schools are closed. Villages have burned to the ground. Nearly half a million people have been displaced and are desperate for food and shelter. The Franciscan Tertiary Sisters are doing everything they can to assist those in need, even while their own properties and resources are depleted.
I wrote about the crisis in October for Global Sisters Report:
DETERIORATING SITUATION WITHIN THE DIOCESE OF KUMBO
The situation within the Diocese of Kumbo has continued to deteriorate in the context of the ongoing socio-political crisis in Cameroon, ever since it degenerated into an armed conflict in 2017. From September 2018 to March 2019 things have only gotten worse. It began to escalate in the Diocese in September of 2017 when Cameroon’s security/defence forces used live ammunition on protesters during protests that were largely peaceful, as noted by the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference in their Declaration of 4 October 2017.
There have recently been disappearances and corpses found in various communities time and again. Within the last 7 months, several civilians have been killed. Some of those killed have been persons with disabilities and the aged who could not run away to safety. Here are only a few statistics of the recent killings: Romajai (4), Mantum (11), Jakiri (03), Meluf (13), Mbiame (10), Oku (04), Lun (03), Kumbo Square (03), Ndu (06), Nwa (15), Sabongida (10), Nkor (05), Ngarum (02), Oku (02), Ndu (03), Bomasoh (5) and other places. Since the close of 2016, a total of 358 civilians have been documented killed by the belligerent parties – a figure likely to be much higher, since corpses are being discovered every now and then. It is hard to know the number of state forces or pro-independence fighters that might have been killed… (read more of the statement here.)
Pictures of the violence have been sent to our community. In the most graphic image I see three bodies lying on the side of the road, their flesh and the ditch in flames. This photograph is engrained in my mind and heart, and I am sickened by it.
How can people be so awful to one another?
What can we, comfortable and safe in the USA, do to help?
Lately, our committee has been working on planning a town hall event to increase awareness about the crisis and to offer opportunities to act for peace. If you’re in Southwest Wisconsin on Thursday night, April 25, we hope you will join us in La Crosse. Or, if you are out of the area, please join us online as the event will be live-streamed at fspa.org.
Information about the event is below.
Thank you for praying and acting for peace with us!
Join us as we advocate for justice, stability and viable peace.
For more than 20 years, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has had a relationship with the city of Kumbo, Cameroon — first through Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration,
then as an official sister city.
Today, our sister city is in peril. Its residents are caught in violence, the city is almost completely shut down and thousands have fled.
Join FSPA and La Crosse Friends of Cameroon for a town hall to raise awareness and move us all to support peaceful action.
April 25, 2019
5-7 p.m. CST
Cargill Room, The Waterfront Restaurant, La Crosse
The world that surrounds us is daunting,
too many voices speak truth
and prophetic words from false prophets
God cannot be both compassionate
and a defense through which morality props
up the unjust
But the most persuasive voices
can tailor the emperor’s clothes
to align with God’s will
or is it man’s?
So that the immigrant is still detained
the prisons overflow
race is divisive
the poor are criminalized
the natural world degraded
walls are built
And weapons are beat not into plowshares,
but into proclamations that they alone
can make us secure.
The drumbeat goes on
And then, in stillness
the God who is addressed in prayer
who is challenged and cursed and loved
Enter into discomfort, dispel rational thought
that has normalized hate, and do not tread on the surface, but abandon it for the deepfor it is therethat the truth will be uncoveredrevealing that all are created
in the image and likeness of Godall are made holy and sacred and just.
It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
as though all of the daughters and sisters and mothers
had preached a holy Gospel that for too long had gone unheard in the echo chambers of the ordained and the backroom channels of the elected and the boardroom coffers
of an ever-present greed
and the people would plead,
and the faithful would gather:
We must rise from dust and ashes to a sermon on the mount that was once proclaimed not mere allegory or callous refrain but a prophetic truth that has always been
that has always been until it wasn’t
because we had strayed so far from the road
that the Judean was left to rot and decay
and Lazarus awoke only to die again
and the fishermen did not walk on water
but capsized in the storm,
their bodies washed to shore
not as fishermen, not as disciples,
but as refugee children drowned
and the rich man walked through
the eye of the needle
and the mob picked up the pile of stones
and the loaves and fishes were hoarded away
and the other cheek was not turned to the side,
but instead a gun was drawn
and the bullets pierced those hands
that once held nails
And we wept.
For so long we wept and cried out:
My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
And in reply her voice dispelled any rumor or denial:
My child, my child it is you who have forsaken me.
For in that moment our truth had finally been revealed
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
if the God we choose is a placeholder
to uphold unjust views
or whose ears fall deaf to the cries of the poor
or who promotes a prosperity
that benefits a few and no more.
For we cannot claim a compassionate God
and proclaim the Gospel as the only truth
when that very same God is rejected by us
because he or she does not look like us
but rather the image that appears
reflected in our mirror is
the immigrant detained by us
the refugee excluded by us
the inmate who profits us
the detainee tortured by us
the gay man shamed by us
the child abused by us
the woman silenced by us
the poor forgotten by us
And all of it in my name.
So forgive us, we know not what we do.
Forgive us, even though we know
that it’s not quite true:
for we know exactly what we do.
Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois.He currently lives near Madison and is a stay-at-home dad to two creative and adventurous kids, and is an active member of the Catholic Worker community there.
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. — 2 Corinthians 12:9
Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.
Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.
Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.
Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.
Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher. I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.
“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.
“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”
“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.
“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”
“It was hard for you?” he asked.
“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.
“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.
“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer. It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.
In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.
But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.
I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.
When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”
I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.
The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”
I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”
“This is different.”
“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”
“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”
“He’s the best.”
“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”
They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.
“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”
“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.
I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”
They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”
“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.
I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.
When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback — but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students — many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling — that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?
“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”
We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.
Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.
“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”
At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.
“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.
“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.
“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”
“Tell us another one!” a third student said.
To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love — why you are in love — with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.
But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.
So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
What image of Mary. the mother of God, do you remember seeing as a child? When you close your eyes and imagine Mary today, who do you see?
What color is her hair? Her eyes? Her skin? What type of clothes is she wearing in your imagination?
As a kid growing up in a tight-knit Catholic community in the 1990s, most, if not all, of the images that I remember seeing of Mary were with white skin and brown hair. I can’t remember if her eyes were blue or brown, but I definitely remember her skin being the same pale white as my own.
Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too much about those representations of Mary until last year when a friend reached out to me to request a commissioned painting.
He was working as a high school teacher at a Catholic school and was interested in commissioning a painting of a “historically accurate” Mary for his course on the New Testament and social justice.
He did some research into anthropological findings about historical Mary and sent me some reference photos of young Palestinian women from that time period. He made a point that her clothes should be un-dyed, a representation of the poverty in her native Galilee and the humble social status of Mary and her family.
I was amazed. I found myself staring into the deep, dark eyes of these young women, admiring their beautiful brown skin and gorgeous, thick, black hair. I saw nothing of the pearly white Mary that I once knew. Had I been duped?
The answer to that question cannot be reduced to scapegoating some imagined mastermind who managed to dupe Catholics worldwide for decades, but I do think the answer has a whole lot to do with white supremacy.
So I accepted the commission, eager to paint this historically accurate Mary and humbled by the opportunity to play a part in this image, which would reach the classroom of young and impressionable (and likely white) Catholic high school students.
And I started thinking more about what I knew about this whitewashed version of Mary, which is so central to Catholic culture.
I remembered being taught in school about the Neave forensic anthropological reconstruction of Jesus, but how could that one lesson really compete with the whitewashed depictions of the Holy Family surrounding the rest of my Catholic upbringing?
And I realized that this is precisely how white supremacy works: whiteness dominates our everyday lives so completely that we almost don’t even notice it, much less question it.
Any historian, anthropologist, or high school religion teacher could tell us that the historical Mary was definitively not white. Yet how many whitewashed images of Mary go unnoticed and unquestioned in our parishes, homes and classrooms still today?
It is tempting as Catholic white people, I think, to reject any notion of white supremacy as other than us. We wish to associate white supremacy with the violence and hate that we see on the news and can hardly imagine that such violence has anything to do with us.
Many of us white people struggle to see white supremacy as an integral part of the culture we participate in daily.
But we don’t have to look any further than our white images of Mary to see the white supremacy alive in our communities today.
While it may be difficult to see the violence in a whitewashed depiction of Mary, maybe we can see the violence in the ways we outcast, punish and dehumanize the brown and black immigrants and refugees suffering at the hands of our countries’ domestic and foreign policies.
Maybe we can reflect on the ways that we admire and revere the white depictions of the Holy Family but struggle to empathize with people of color on the margins of our society.
Can we start by imagining how our concept of God and Spirit and community might have been transformed if we had grown up seeing the Mother of God as she really was, with beautiful brown skin, deep, dark eyes and thick, black hair?
Can we imagine how that transformation might have opened our hearts and minds to see God and Spirit in more than our white reflection?
What would it look like for each of us to start replacing the whitewashed Biblical images in our parishes, offices, classrooms and homes with historically accurate images? What other actions might we take to open up conversations within our white communities about the violence of whitewashing our faith and our history?
I believe that we have a lot of work to do as white people, and changing the whitewashed images of Mary in our midst is just one action we can take to dismantle the systemic problems of white supremacy and racism. Taking concrete actions in our faith communities and in our faith lives is one place to start.
Annemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.