I am a Franciscan, yet much of Carmelite spirituality resonates with me. Perhaps it’s because I am inspired by the depth of the tradition. Maybe it is because the wisdom offered reads like poetry. Or, it could be because the beautiful images and metaphors feel right to my meandering heart and mind: Flower, Castle and Mystery. Most likely, it is because a devotion to God’s love is also my intention.
Yes, I love Carmelite spirituality just as I love my own Franciscan tradition. Even so, I can admit that I have a lot more to learn. That’s is why I am excited about a new book from Paraclete Press.
From the Foreword to Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019). The foreword is written by Adam Bucko.
I can still see the light of the moon reflected on the snow-covered ground outside. It was a quiet winter evening in 1985 when my mother gathered us together— she, my dad, and I—and we knelt down as a family to pray. Martial law, which had been instituted by the totalitarian regime in Poland to destroy the opposition, had just ended, but the images on the news of people in the streets run over by tanks were very present in our memory. As we knelt, we faced a small picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and mom held a typed booklet with a shiny red cover that had been produced by an underground association of the faithful. We began to pray the novena.
Our lives were about to drastically change. I had just found out that my father was about to leave for the US, after having been granted permission from the American consulate. My parents had known for a while but were afraid to tell me in case I, with the innocence and eagerness of the small boy that I was, shared it with my classmates. They feared that government officials would show up and confiscate my father’s passport, preventing him from leaving. I understood that now that I knew, I had to keep quiet. Our nightly novena to the Little Flower of Jesus gave me a sense of reassurance during this scary time, that the motherly presence of God would hold us securely, not only now, but in the years to come.
The Poland of my childhood was a place of violence and tragedy, but also hope. When our government was eager to keep us in check by any means necessary, we decided to live our lives with our invisible—but all too real—holy friends, who strengthened our resolve not to…
[Read more from the Foreword of Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019) HERE.]
Adam Bucko and Sister Julia have become close friends since they were introduced to each other. Adam is an activist and spiritual director to New York City’s homeless youth. He grew up in Poland during the totalitarian regime, where he explored the anarchist youth movement as a force for social and political change. Adam emigrated to the United States at 17, but his desire to lead a meaningful life sent him to monasteries in the U.S. and India. His life-defining experience took place in India, where a brief encounter with a homeless child led him to the “Ashram of the Poor” where he began his work with homeless youth. Upon returning to the U.S., Adam worked with homeless youth in cities around the country. He co-founded The Reciprocity Foundation, an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of New York City’s homeless youth. Adam is currently based at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where he is helping to launch the Center for Spiritual Imagination.
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?
“With five brothers,” began my dad, telling the familiar story to my niece and nephew, “your Great-aunt Kathy was always getting her food stolen. Her spot was right next to your great-grandfather, who used to tease her. Every night at dinner, your Aunt Kathy would huddle over her plate, with her fork ready to stab anyone’s hand that came near her food. My dad would slowly creep his fork over to Aunt Kathy’s plate when he thought she wasn’t looking. Oh, she would get so mad! ” He imitated my aunt huddling over her food for dramatic effect. My niece and nephew giggled when they heard this story for the first time. “We always ate ’till all the food was gone,” he remembered, smiling. “There were never any leftovers at Thanksgiving!” he finished. My mother chimed in with another familiar part of the story. “The first time I went to your great-grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving I swear, it was like watching a plague of locusts devour the food,” she remembered.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that story, but my dad’s imitation of my Aunt Kathy always makes me laugh. I love this part of the holiday; the family stories and familiar anecdotes, trying to one up each other to see who can make everyone laugh the hardest. I feel so safe and connected to my family during these storytelling sessions. We create connections and community together. This is the heart of both the Thanksgiving holiday and the Eucharist — community. Loved ones gather at the table to share food, memories, and of course, family stories. Like life in my religious and church community, it can be both joyous and complicated.
I imagine that the Last Supper with Jesus was, in many ways, not unlike many Thanksgiving holidays. I’m certain there was a tremendous hustle and bustle of making plans for travel and preparations for the meal itself. Where would they eat? Who would prepare the food? Who was invited? Also like many Thanksgivings I have experienced, once the festivities began, there must have been both joy in being together, a sharing of memories, prayer and, definitely, disagreements.
One of the best things for me about Thanksgiving is the intergenerational sharing. I delight in watching my nieces and nephews as we gather around our Thanksgiving table each year. Since I am no chef, I often have the responsibility of keeping the children in my family occupied as the others take over the kitchen to prepare the feast. This year will be the first time my six-month-old great-nephew will join us. (How am I even old enough to have a great-nephew?) I am so excited to be able see Thanksgiving through his eyes.
Slowly but surely, little by little, responsibility for Thanksgiving has shifted to my generation. My earliest Thanksgivings were put on by my grandparents. We used to switch off and on from my mother’s parents to my father’s mother’s house. Eventually, my parents’ generation took over hosting duties. Now, my siblings take charge. It wasn’t without tension or disagreements. My parents had to slowly let go of some of the things they used to do; how they prepared the food, what was served, and so on. This was especially hard for my father, who delights in cooking. Over the years, circumstances just made it easier for my brother or my sister to host the meal.
It can be difficult to avoid conflict with family members during holidays. Sometimes the conflict is as simple as expectations for helping in the kitchen, or an unkind word or two. Others are more deep-seeded such as those driven by grief, broken relationships or politics. It can take a great deal of patience, forgiveness and humility to navigate these relationships, especially in a family of stubborn, hot-headed Irish-American Catholics! This is true of disagreements in our church family as well. Patience, forgiveness and humility are key in healing the great divisions.
Loss can also take on more significant meaning during the holidays. We mourn those who are no longer with us. We miss their presence. This is my best friend’s first Thanksgiving since her mother passed six months ago. “It just won’t be the same without Mom. I can’t do everything she used to,” she’s lamented to me. My heart feels for her. All I can do is offer my support, and assure her that her mother would be proud of the effort she and her siblings make this year. I wonder what that next Passover, the year after Jesus died, was like for the remaining apostles. (It would seem that they were scattered over the Middle East and Europe.)
One thing that we do know for sure: they told the story to the first Christians. The significance of that Passover has been handed on to us from them, and has become the centerpiece around which the Christian community gathers.
Isn’t that the heart of Eucharist? A handing down of the story of our salvation, a meal shared in memory of the one who loved us even to his death on the cross? And isn’t that the heart of what we do at Thanksgiving? Share a meal and our life stories together? It’s how we come to know each other as individuals and as family. It’s how we pass on the values that are important to us to the younger generation. It’s how we remember those who have left us. The story connects and bonds us. This Thanksgiving, I hope to focus on listening to the stories of the lives of those I love, and sharing my life story with them.
Sister Shannon Fox
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 have been praying to St. Joe, the earthly father of Jesus, a lot lately.
I call him St. Joeinstead of St. Josephbecause shortening his name makes him more real to me, like a friend. When I pray to saints it is helpful for me to behave like we are in relationship; change occurs on a relational level.
I am a single, 27-year-old female who is not trying to sell a home or become a carpenter. Although I have little in common with St. Joe, we have been having a lot of chats.
I am a nanny by trade and the majority of my week is spent loving and taking care of other people’s children. I educate, wash the clothes and change the diapers of little ones.
St. Joe is my friend through all of this labor because, when it comes to loving the children of others, I am pretty sure there is no one better to model my heart after. I am often tired and drained in this work. The words I say seem to bounce right off the back of the energetic four-year old. Frustrated again and again, I turn to St. Joe:
“Please help me to love this child like you love Jesus.
Help me to not get caught up in the frustrations of the day-to-day.”
This simple prayer calms and encourages me to think more deeply about the dynamics of the Holy Family. I find myself wondering, just as I do about myself, if St. Joseph knew how difficult raising a child would be, if he ever doubted that what he was doing mattered and if the love he provided was enough.
While teaching children as a nanny, I am learning too. It shows me that loving people is messy and imperfect, that God gives us the saints to encourage us and to help us strive for holiness. They are given as gifts because God loves us so infinitely and provides examples of people just like us who have become saints. Similarly, as I explore and deepen my faith Jesus’ lessons on loving children, especially as a non-biological parent like St. Joe, inspire me.
And the more I talk to St. Joe about caring for children not our own, I realize we have even more in common. I am loved very deeply by a stepparent. As I look at the role St. Joseph plays in the life of Jesus and the role my own stepmom plays in mine, I realize that by taking on the responsibilities of loving another’s child we open our hearts to being conductors of the spiritual works of mercy. We embrace all seven of them: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.
I know that, throughout her marriage to my dad, my stepmom has and continues to do all of this for me and my brothers. I suspect that St. Joe would have also practiced these works of mercy with Jesus. I imagine that there were times when St. Joe prayed to be better at these things, just like I do.
So what do I, a single 27-year-old non-homeowner and non-carpenter have in common? Love. Lots and lots of love by the will of God, mercy. I know I need it, and I know I can grow by practicing it.
Thanks for the example, St. Joe.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.
The smell of bread baking wafts, stills her light
as she enters bouncing, screen door clanging. Show me, Grandma. I want to know.
For the next batch, she is held firm between
warm embrace and floured dough upon tan
table. She’s stunned by the flowing union
of grandma’s arms and shaking dough.
Punch into the metal bowl, there you go.
The holy is here in the expanding yeast,
in the building of love’s awed vitality.
Rising bread and growing girl, all glory
and praise is poured forth in the communion
of kneading dough.
Have a blessed Feast of Corpus Christi, Messy Jesus Business readers! I hope you will join me in striving to honor the sacredness of every beloved body–human and otherwise–and the holiness of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament of bread and wine. Love, Sister Julia
“Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do/ For they know not
Who you are.” ~ “Pillar of Truth” by Lucy Dacus
It’s been about four hours since the birth, and now that everyone is calm and happy and relaxing, I take a minute to steal away. I descend softly down the stairs, down the corridor, and into the dim, cool, silent wood and stone chapel. On the side is the naive where the tabernacle waits, the red lamp is lit and glowing. I kneel.
“Thank you. Thank you for the gift of my son. Thank you for the gift of his life, his healthy delivery. For his mother, his sister, our whole family. I’m really overwhelmed with gratitude for these blessings. Thank you. Really.”
I pause. I look around. I breathe in the quiet for a moment.
“If I’m being honest … I’m a bit nervous. About raising a son. It’s a … confusing time to be raising a young man. A confusing time to know what it means to be a man, with so many different, conflicting ideas of manhood competing for attention. Some quite uplifting, but so many so destructive, so toxic … so short of what I hope my son will be and become.
“That’s why we named him after you. Joshua. He’ll know you by a different name of course — the Latin derivative, instead of the Hebrew — but still, he’s named for you. Please teach him, your namesake, by your example of what it means to be a man.
Meet baby Joshua (image courtesy of Steven Cottam)
“Teach him that courage does not mean the willingness to inflict pain, but the willingness to endure it for the good.
“Teach him that it is stronger to control anger, greed, and lust than to give it free rein and inflict it upon others.
“Teach him that the proper use of power is the defense of the powerless.
“Teach him that to protect and provide for his family does not stop with those who share his features, but extends to all his brothers and sisters in need.
“Teach him that it is better to die as an innocent, than to live as an oppressor.
“So many have said to me, about my son, ‘How exciting, a son!’
’Yes, exciting!’ I say.
‘He’ll get to be the one to pass on your name.’
‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘Maybe. Probably. Unless of course he is called to a different path. To be a religious brother. Or a priest. Should we be so blessed.’
‘Well, sure … but you don’t want your only son to be a priest. Who would pass on your name?’
“Hmm. Good question. Who would pass on my name? I’ll be honest Lord. It doesn’t matter to me if my name is passed on. It doesn’t matter to me if my descendants remember me. But please, Lord, let my son pass on your name. Let my descendants remember you. Let them know who you are.
“Please remember this your namesake. Remember him by granting him the grace to remember you — your name, your life, and to call upon you all the days of his.
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. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I’ve been told that I’ll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.
Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I’d reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren’t for the swollen flesh holding me together.
I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can’t sleep. I can’t relax. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this dark, lonely night.
But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it’s the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This is the beginning of my latest column for “National Catholic Reporter’s” “Global Sisters Report.” Read more of “Groaning and gratitude” here.
With an armful of children’s books and DVD’s, I make my way through the glass library door. I feel awkward as I carry these items, as foreign to me as the rocks on Mars. I feel like I should explain that these books aren’t for my children, that I don’t have any.
I’ve been visiting this library for nearly a year, yet I only stepped into the kid’s section for the first time during this visit. I felt like an intruder, like I needed to explain myself, justify my presence there. I guess I felt a bit lost away from…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the Page. Continue reading here.]
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46
Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.
But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.
“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.
My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”
“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”
“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”
“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”
“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a bench – they’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavier – they might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”
The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.
I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.
Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.
So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
My husband and I recently made the difficult decision to open our guestroom to a family experiencing homelessness in our community.
We heard about a mother, father and their infant who were living on the streets and in dire need of help. A member of my husband’s congregation posted on Facebook that the family, whom she had known for quite a while, were looking for a place to stay. Though she herself would have loved to take them in, she had family visiting and no extra space in her house, so could someone please help?
I couldn’t ignore her desperate plea for somebody with a spare room to step up and get the family off the streets.
You see, we have a wonderful guestroom in our house and it just so happened to be unoccupied at the moment. Our guestroom is the “master bedroom” of the home, a converted garage with plenty of space and an en suite bathroom.
When we bought our house nearly five years ago, my husband and I envisioned this space to be our “Jesus Room.” In the spirit of one of our heroes, Dorothy Day, we wanted a dedicated hospitality room into which we could welcome Jesus in the form of “the least of these.” But the refugee resettlement organization I contacted regarding transitional shelter needs never followed through on their home inspection process … and our family and friends kept visiting … and our lives were busy.
Eventually, the sense of urgency we’d felt to utilize the space for God’s poor subsided.
When I heard about the family living on the street, I knew this was our chance to finally make our guestroom a true Jesus Room. Here was an opportunity to practice the radical hospitality that we believe is fundamental to Christianity.
But, here’s the thing: I really didn’t want to.
As I scrolled through the Facebook post, hoping to no avail that somebody else would volunteer, I became increasingly apprehensive. I came up with an unholy litany of reasons to say no: Our house isn’t big enough for seven people; our schedule isn’t very flexible so we won’t be able to help them get to their appointments; I don’t want strangers sleeping in the same house as my two young daughters.
It’s reasonable, I think, to be hesitant to bring strangers into a home with young children. But, as I previously reflected, I don’t want to use my daughters as an excuse to abide complacently in my comfort zone. In my heart, I did not believe that allowing this family to stay in our guestroom would put my daughters in danger.
What, then, was my excuse? That it made me uncomfortable? Unfortunately, I concluded long ago that following Jesus is supposed to be uncomfortable.
So, my husband and I put the word out that this family could move into our guestroom. Since they did not have a working cell phone, we had to trust that their network of friends in the community would get the message to them.
Meanwhile, we frantically cleaned the house; we bought baby food, diapers and extra sandwich fixings; we came up with a plan for establishing appropriate boundaries with the family. On an impulse, I hid our iPad, and hated myself a little bit for doing so.
And then we waited.
For most of a week we wondered when and, eventually, if the family would arrive. Finally, they showed up at a community supper and we learned they’d found some other friends to stay with.
They would not be needing our Jesus Room after all.
I was both immensely relieved and acutely disappointed. On the one hand, our daily routine would not be disrupted. On the other, we hadn’t gotten to practice the Christian hospitality we so revere (at least in theory).
Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what it truly means to “practice hospitality.”
It’s not something I’m naturally good at (as demonstrated by my knee-jerk reaction of finding reasons to say no), but this experience has helped me to practice hospitality—to practice preparing my home for a stranger, to practice making the decision to step out of my comfort zone, to practice being welcoming in a Christ-like way.
And, as with anything, the more we practice the better we become.
Not only do I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make a Jesus Room out of our guestroom, I feel confident that when I’m faced with another opportunity to “welcome the stranger,” I will be less hesitant to say yes. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even be able to say yes with a fully cheerful heart as Paul instructs us, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, to do.
Until then, I take comfort in the knowledge that—while I am a far cry from a perfect Christian—I am at least a practicing one.