As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.
I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.
On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.
Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.
For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).
“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”
I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.
Amy Nee and one of her children.
Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?
Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.
One life … one life … one life … one life.
Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends. Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.
One life … one life … one life … one life.
I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.
A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.
The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.
The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.
It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.
I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.
Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?
It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?
A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.
Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.
During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.
Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.
In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.
Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.
I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.
By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen!
As a Midwesterner, I don’t know much about deserts. I’ve visited some deserts in places like Namibia and New Mexico though, and have always found the environment very strange and mysterious; it’s not really barren as a lot of life and beauty thrives in the dryness. I certainly don’t know much about springtime in such a landscape, but I understand that desert dwellers also experience the season—just very differently than we do here in the Midwest.
Yet, I know Lent is really not about the dryness and emptiness we associate with deserts—even though it’s often what fasting feels like at first. Rather, Lent is about signs of spring: refreshment, renewal and growth.
We manifest these signs of spring to each other as we offer gestures of love, kindness and service to one another during these 40 days. Our actions make us into signs and transform the world around us. We freshen the environment, the culture, and our community and make marks of preparation. In a way, our actions become like little party decorations that get us really ready for the power, mystery, conversion and celebration that happens in Holy Week.
Our Lenten actions are definitely signs of spring. Our prayers, fasting and almsgiving are vibrant signs of hope for a hurting humanity. Our works of mercy in motion can be encouragement for each other, when we keep flopping and failing in our Lenten practices, getting discouraged and realizing, again, how much we need God. As we share Christ’s love may we keep our eyes open and see the green life coming forth from each of us, and may we keep our ears open to hear the beautiful, encouraging songs of the returned birds.
The signs of spring are all around us in this Lenten desert. May we lean on each other as a beloved community and see each other as signs of real renewal and hope.
So far this Lent, I have already encountered the parts of me I don’t like.
As I try to stay dedicated to my Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I seem to keep catching a glance of myself in the mirror: I see that I am a sinner, I am weak, I am broken. Over and over again I face the truth: I must be totally dependent on God and God’s mercy.
I’ve been talking to God through prayer about this familiar cycle that I go through every Lent (and during ordinary time too.)
It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that my struggles repeat because I’m consistently dealing with the same person: me.
And then I thought about some Lenten Messy Jesus Business posts from the past that remain meaningful to me. I’d like to share them with you!
Here are 5 of my favorite Messy Jesus Business posts about Lent:
1.) “This is HARD” by Jerica Arents, April 8, 2011, is a reflection on how the inconvenient fasts from plastic, sugar and electricity ultimately brought her closer to her community.
2.) “The weirdness of witnessing,”February 28, 2012. The season of Lent freed me to be real about how I don’t always like to be “out there” and share my faith for many reasons, but one is because when I sin then it can reflect badly on all Christians. Bonus: “What if I stumble?” (a song by DC Talk) is mixed in!
3.) “Lent: Divorcing our bad habits,” March 3, 2013. A British indie pop band Autoheart has a really catchy song called “Lent” and it inspired me to think about which bad habits I might need to “divorce” in order to gain true freedom in Christ.
4.) “Becoming a new fruit and fertilizer“ by Amy Nee, March 21, 2013. Amy writes how compost became her Lenten mantra as she worked to get back to the basics of her faith. Some wisdom from the 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi, is incorporated beautifully.
5.) “Ashy Remembering,” March 7, 2014, is a poem about distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday and remembering my own mortality and need to repent as I touch other human faces.
What Lenten reflections and prayers speak to you during your time fasting in the desert this year?
I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.
My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’! You’ll get better!”
She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.
It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.
My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.
But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.
Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.
As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.
I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.
By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.
Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.
It’s time to make some changes.
On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.
Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.
The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.
Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.
Lent: we’ve been into it for over a week now. We are in this spiritual wilderness desiring to be better people, hoping to change. All sorts of actions are getting us into spiritual-shape again: fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Through each simple act, we confront our weaknesses and give up on trying to make it on our own. We recognize our need to depend on God.
Yes, here in this Lenten desert we are parched and challenged by the Truth: we must give in to God’s ways. God’s ways are communal. Living according to God’s ways will allow us to grow into the people we know God made us to be. God made us for interdependent relationships. God made us to put love into action.
In this Lenten wilderness, it shouldn’t take long for our penitential living to turn from classic navel-gazing into phenomenal social transformations. This life of faith is not about usalone. Christian living is not a me-and-God thing. Rather, we give, fast and pray to remember that this faith-life is about all of us together loving like God loves. Our sacrifices and disciplines are meant to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Jesus’ sacrifices certainly did just that.
This means I gave up sugar for Lent–not just because I want to get healthier but because I want the entire global sugar industry to become more just. Naturally then, if I am avoiding sugar during these 40 days, I must also pray and advocate for changes in the corrupt food system, for improvements in the lives of the workers on sugar plantations. This Lenten sacrifice is not just about me. It’s about loving my neighbor like Jesus taught me to.
In our culture, it can be challenging for our Lenten actions to not have self-centered motivations. When we’re comfortable and distant from the suffering of others, our focus can become too inward. When we feel the impact of sacrifice it can become difficult for us to remember the reason for the tradition of our Church: we give things up in order to help the poor. It takes a different type of intentionality to connect with the people who we love and want to help with our actions. Fortunately, there are several tools to help us connect to our global community. For the love of others, let’s utilize these resources because otherwise it can be hard to believe that our actions make a real systemic difference.
Thank God, Scripture assures us that God is with us in this relational struggle even when the doubts are intense or the sacrifice is too hard. God strengthens us and revives us while we fast for the good of others:
Some days, I feel like I just want a restart button.
At times, I even feel this way about my life.
And then, when I look at all the problems in the world, aware of how complicated and messy the issues of injustice really are, I frequently feel the same way.
I just want to press a button and let everything reboot, wake up all refreshed and renewed and ready to do things much better, to be more like we’re supposed to be.
That’s why I love this sacred season of Lent. I want to grow, I desire holiness, I pray for justice. I really do believe that things can be better and through God’s grace, we have something to do with it.
Back on Ash Wednesday there was a lot of chatter about what people were “giving up” for Lent. I didn’t chime in then, but now I’ll tell you some of what I’m up to. A full Lenten experience is not just about “giving things up” but committing to any activities of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to, in a sense, restart our relationships with God and others.
In fact, I am finding that the actions I have been taking work much more gradually than it does when I push a restart button. People and social problems aren’t machines, after all. Forty days is probably a good amount of time for a proper restart.
In my living community, the sisters and I are eating vegetarian then donating the money we would have spent on meat to the area warming center. We are holding Friday nights as a silent hermitage time for contemplation. Plus, a couple of us started volunteering at a free community dinner, which I think we’ll continue doing after Lent.
Lastly, today I’m leading a small group of youth in a CRS Food Fast retreat. Please say a prayer for the high school students who are fasting and will engage in service-learning and prayer activities after school. All of our actions should help us be in solidarity with those who are really hungry in other parts of the world.
The restart process is not pain-free, of course, but it’s so worth it. Basically, the activities of Lent are chipping away at the hardness in my heart and helping me learn some big lessons:
The acts of service and fasting have taught me that I am way too comfortable, not just materially, but also with my plans. I’ve realized that I have fallen into a bit of a rut of liking my routine to be a certain way. Even though I have good intentions, I practically walk around every day with my focus on my to-do list with a giant “do not disturb” sign hanging from my face. How can I help build up the kingdom of God if I am not open, flexible and available? Am I awake to the work of God?
Speaking to being awake to the work of God, the activities of prayer have helped me gain a deeper desire for more intimacy with God. I entered Lent looking forward to my Triduum because then I could have a little vacation. Now, I am hoping for a silent retreat over those days, almost isolated from civilization.
Lastly, I believe again that every little action has an impact. I realized that sometimes when I pray or do acts of charity I am tempted to become cynical about whether I am really making a difference. Now, because of some feedback received from others, I’m remembering that the littlest things do indeed matter; we just don’t always know how. This interdependence among us reaches across the globe to our brothers and sisters who are desperate for the pennies that we throw away, too. Our choices to be in solidarity with them this Lent really improve their livelihood, thanks be to God. This video helps me understand that:
Ultimately, the Lenten restart button that I was hoping for has had an impact on me. I have gotten disturbed. I am changed. I am getting to be a bit better, we all are.
“Eternal God…You know that these men have testified falsely against me. Would you let me die, though I am not guilty of all their malicious charges?”
This week the daily mass readings begin with the cry of Susannah, unjustly accused by corrupt officials, sentenced to death in the presence of the people. We read that God hears her. But Susannah is not saved by a bolt of lightning striking down her foes, or by being mysteriously transported to safety. God arouses the Holy Spirit stirring a “young lad,” Daniel, a witness in a crowd of impassive witnesses, and this small person shouts, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
People in the crowd are startled. Many had been grieved by the proceedings, but this was out of their hands, the elders, the leaders had decided. Yet here is this stirring, “What did you say?” they ask.
And Daniel says to the people, “Have you become fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?”
In this story, the people respond, turning the tables by turning the accusers over for questioning. It is now they who must prove their case, which they fail to do. So Susannah is delivered, back to her family, and the accusers take her place in receiving the full penalty of the law.
I am struck by how clearly this story illustrates that God moves by moving people. Would this providential delivery have been possible had Daniel not responded to the spirit stirring him to speak? What if the people had not listened? What does all of this mean for us in our time?
Hearing this story for the first time, my thoughts immediately went to an outcry that is currently falling on deaf ears. There are 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. They are held there without due process, accused in the absence of clear evidence. Their detention is indefinite, a torturous reality. Adding insult to injury, the sacred texts of these men of faith are being tampered with and desecrated, letters from their wives and children are censored or withheld. At Guantanamo, more men have died (9) than have been convicted of a crime (6). The men are experiencing a living death, confined to their tomb until the day that their corpse can be released to their family without fear that it will speak of what it has suffered.
Yet the men there are finding ways to cry out, to God, to their captors, to this crowd of people in the United States, to us. They are using the only tool they have left, their own body, hunger striking. They are not demanding release, only humane treatment, just procedures.
As a woman of faith, I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to arouse a voice in the crowd. We are given the example of Daniel for a reason. God desires compassion and justice and these divine gifts come through people who respond. But what can we do, when the prisoners are not standing directly before us, when the crowd is not crushing about us?
We can still adopt and adapt Daniel’s words, “I will have no part in the death of these men,” “Have we become fools, to condemn men without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?” And we can find the crowds to speak it to, and draw a crowd to speak it with us.
Witness Against Torture (WAT), a group of men and women from across the United States, has been seeking an end to indefinite detention, due process and resettlement for those detained, and the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention center since 2005. Together we are responding to the hunger strikes with tangible actions. Beginning March 24th (Holy Week, for those in the Catholic tradition) we will hold a seven day solidarity fast. Throughout that week we encourage people to call the White House; send letters to the prisoners acknowledging that they have been heard by the public, even if officials have yet to respond; join us for vigils (see witnesstorture.org to find out if there are any happening in your city, or start your own); participate in the fast for a day or more; spread the news in any way you can.
Adnan Latif, a Muslim man who, after eleven years of detention, died at Guantanamo wrote a poignant poem in which he asks, “Who will save the hunger striker?” He died, without ever having been proved guilty of “all their malicious charges.” How many deaths before the cry is heard?