Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

franciscan-sistesrs-house-fire

Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

franciscan-sisters-flames

Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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.

When disaster strikes, God remains

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Photo credit: businessinsider.com

 

The two narratives

twist together

when the waters churn

and the fears rise,

when the winds blow

and doubts intensify,

when the flames destroy

and homes burn to ash.

Every surrender surfaces

acts of courage and love.

Community is formed

around the cross of loss.

When suffering blinds us from

“trust in God” it is OK to scream

or cry or wonder if we’re being

ignored by the God of love,

to acknowledge the ache

of possible abandonment.

And in the still of the storm,

the heroes and the victims,

who are helpers and hurting

(all of us wear both badges)

make known the power of God’s

presence and the might of love.

This is our story of salvation,

this is the story of Incarnational

transformation. Although we are

frozen in fear, we arise to schlep

out junk. We splurge no more so

we can contribute more cash.

We grip arms as one

steadily moving forward

toward Sunday’s true joy.

Yes, by “love one another”

God remains real

in the midst of disaster.

Hearts on fire for the good of all

Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.

It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”

It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed…

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

“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and www.zazzle.com/peter_neel
“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (my brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of my Perpetual Vows. Peter’s art can be found online at http://www.saatchiart.com/peterneel and http://www.zazzle.com/peter_neel

How to be Hot for God

Being Christian is not for sissies, I have heard some say. We must be bold, courageous and purposely enter into experiences of encounter that might make the average person squirm.

For starters, this is a life of serious love. And for us Christians, love is a verb, not a feeling. We have to love our enemies, not just our friends, even when it might not feel good or make sense. This love is done through countercultural actions: we have to forgive, stand up for justice, help the poor and marginalized.

All this love-in-action activity totally changes us for the better. Conversion gets the best of us. Our minds, hearts and behaviors change. For doing this love-work means we must hang out with prisoners, the people who scare us, the smelly— and we might become poor, scary, imprisoned and smelly ourselves in the process.

This being a Christian-thing: it’s messy, it’s complicated and totally challenging.

God really is demanding; God does ask a lot. We must give over our whole life and become totally transformed, and unite with God in our hearts, minds and spirits. For sure, this discipleship is an all-or-nothing thing. No pretending, going through motions, or half-assing any sort of faith-life; at least not if we want to really please God and build God’s reign of peace and justice.

Yes, like the verse in Revelation says, we must not be lukewarm with our faith.

I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot.

So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 

Rev 3: 15 & 16

When we’re real with ourselves, though, we might be able to admit that we don’t always feel on fire for the Gospel and the love of Jesus. Sometimes we are just not in the mood to go to great lengths to care for others. And, other times we are full of doubts, confusion. We are hurting, exhausted and just plain weary.

“fire” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

So, if we’re feeling lukewarm and we don’t want God to spit us out, then what are we to do?

It’s important to understand the original context of the passage; it was written to encourage persecuted Christians to remain faithful and hopeful during the Roman Empire. Many Christians were hiding their faith or trying to participate in both the state religion as well as their Christian communities, in the same way that today some of us still participate in the sins of the common culture while still going to Church saying we’re a Christian. This is the type of lukewarm faith that doesn’t care, that is comfortable and not interested in growth or feeling passion for God and others.

But, what if we are lukewarm because we’re struggling? What can we do if we don’t feel hot for God like we want?

Here’s how to be hot for God:

  • Surround yourself with strong, faithful Christians who you can lean on for support. Recently one of my young nun friends posted a meme that totally summed this up for me. There was a picture of a bunch of ladies in wacky clothes and a statement: “surround yourself with people on the same mission as you.”
  • Study scripture and pray a lot. Ask God for a strong faith, for strength and keep in mind that faith is a gift, but faithfulness is required in all relationships. And, a life of faith is a life in relationship.
  • Do frequent acts of service because a great way to get to know God is by getting close to poverty.
  • Receive the sacraments and allow the graces of God to transform you from the inside out.
  • Listen and stay open to God’s beauty and love surrounding you all the time, whether it is nature, in art, your own acts of creativity or in the people you love.
  • Ask others to pray for you such as my community. By the way, we have a perpetual adoration chapel and are praying 24/7 and we love praying for all of you and all your requests! You can submit your prayer requests here.

Indeed, let us pray for each other, that all of us can burn brightly with our love for God! Amen!

(If you are wondering what inspired this very impassioned post, I gave a very similar sermon to my 9th grade Scripture students while we were studying Revelation this week. But, it also seems incredibly relevant for us all to reflect on how we can be more vibrant with our faith in light of Pope Francis’ prayer intentions for secularization nations during the month of May and the recently released data on “America’s changing religious landscape.”)

trusting fire’s power

The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice.  No barriers divide us, no division separates us.  God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.

Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong.  We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits.  With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred.  If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.

In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature.  Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive.  Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests.  Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.

We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding.  It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore?  How can we believe and trust?  How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?

Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through.  In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.

I try to trust, despite the struggle.  I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed.  A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice.  He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered.  “No, it’s not!” I said.

Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain.  Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK.  I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.

Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends.  The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.

The Golden Sequence

Come, Holy Spirit,

send forth the heavenly

radiance of your light.

Come, father of the poor,

come, giver of gifts,

come, light of the heart.

Greatest comforter,

sweet guest of the soul,

sweet consolation.

In labor, rest,

in heat, temperance,

in tears, solace.

O most blessed light,

fill the inmost heart

of your faithful.

Without your grace,

there is nothing in us,

nothing that is not harmful.

Cleanse that which is unclean,

water that which is dry,

heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,

fire that which is chilled,

correct what goes astray.

Give to your faithful,

those who trust in you,

the sevenfold gifts.

Grant the reward of virtue,

grant the deliverance of salvation,

grant eternal joy.

Amen, Alleluia!

you are the light of the world

with innocence spark
leaps fearlessly from
the fire deep inside
where bread breaks and
desire is hot.

spark, simple and pure,
whispers her destiny
“I’m going to Love!”

parent flames are
reminded of their
source and purpose and
so beam out peace.

spark returns as
quickly as she left,
greatly changed.
Now she’s a gust of
energizing wind.

"Bonfire" by Angela Cruz

so spark soars, moves and
dances into the creative community
gusting breathing life
into oppressive systems and uncomfortable truth.

grabbing the hands,
holding the pain,
breaking bread and
uniting in the struggle
all become one.

groaning, hoping, praying,
together they are the heat of the Fire
“Jesus we hear you.
Your Kingdom come.
Your will be done.”