The joy of receiving

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“

~ Loretta Ross-Gotta

Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!

guadalupe-steven-cottam
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

 

However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.

After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”

I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”

tamales-daughter-steven-cottam
Steven’s daughter polishing off the tamales (photo courtesy of Steven Cottam)

Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.

I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven 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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

Black cloth

Red broth, steaming soup, vegetables

just picked, now my lunch; I slurp life in.

Phone rings

Sister Laura on the line, “Sister Rita is dying.

I’ll put the phone to her ear. Say what you’d

like. She

can’t talk, won’t respond. Say your good-bye.”

A pause. My lungs expand, mind races, I search

my heart

for words just-right. I mutter, “Thank you,”

“I love you,” “Pray for me,” “Enjoy freedom,”

“Good bye.”

She moans acceptance. The words echo—

feel blank, all seems hollow—

sacred.

Red broth, steaming soup, life once fresh

now my lunch; hot liquid tasted,

consumed.

Minutes later I hem black cloth for prayer,

black cloth for teens needing gifts from God—

life long.

Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/379193198
Photo credit: http://www.deviantart.com/morelikethis/379193198

Dedicated to Sister Rita Rathburn, FSPA, who was a sister, friend, and coach for me in the craft of writing. She died on Monday. May she rest in peace. 

Nourishing community with good food: An instrument of mercy

“When you eat a meal, thank the farmer who harvested it and think about their livelihood. Food is something that connects all of us as a community, wherever we live.” Oxfam Fact Sheet

This statement is from a farmer and my sister, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann. It helps me remember that something as basic as eating food and sharing it with community influences how I contribute to the reign of God.

I am from a food family. I grew up in a rural, agricultural, Christian community that taught me to understand that caring for Earth and neighbor is an issue of social justice. Our neighbor is the land as are all creatures large and small that also claim the land as home. As a child I would help…

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

Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)
Cabbage in the FSPA organic garden. (Photo by Jane Comeau)

Things I think about because I watch Chopped

If you were to ask the Sisters I live with what my favorite TV show is, they would probably say Chopped.

It’s true. I really am very passionate the show Chopped.

If you’ve never watched, here’s the premise. Each episode is a competition between four chefs. There are three rounds: appetizer (in 20 minutes), main course and dessert (in 30 minutes each). One person is eliminated each round, depending on the evaluations of the panel of three judges in the categories of taste, presentation and creativity. Besides the challenging time limits of each round, the other thing that makes the show really interesting is the major catch: for each round of cooking, the chefs are given a basket of four mystery ingredients that they must somehow incorporate into their dishes. Squid ink, day-old french fries, stale waffles, ghost peppers, pig snout — the basket almost always contains something bizarre or seemingly impossible. I become amazed with what the chefs manage to create so quickly.

It’s great television, the sort of stuff our culture just eats up (at least now). Chopped can be dramatic, creative and even informative. I learn a little every time I watch. Sure, it’s reality TV full of all types of personalities and competition. But at its basic core, it’s a cooking show that teaches me how to be a better cook.

On any ordinary day, my mind can easily wander into a Chopped daydream. I wonder if I’d be calm or frantic if I were in a timed cooking competition. I daydream about new foods and cooking techniques that I learned on the show. I look forward to my weekly cook night because then I can I can try out a Chopped inspired idea that I am excited about, or simply challenge myself to prepare a tasty, creative and beautiful meal for the Sisters in limited time.

Even though I daydream about it, thoroughly enjoy it and am inspired by it, I actually hesitate to say that Chopped is my favorite TV show. This is due, in part, to my social awareness and my desires for Gospel-centered social justice. I have some serious questions about the show. My Chopped daydreams have also found me wondering: How much food gets thrown away in a taping of an episode? How much fuel was used to get the food and the people to the studio in New York? How were the animals treated before they became food? Who were the farmers that grew the vegetables and what are their farming practices? What are the working conditions in the food factories? How has earth been impacted by Chopped? Who can actually afford to buy the fanciest basket ingredients contestants get to use? Who eats all the extra food in the kitchen’s fridge and pantry?

Despite my numerous questions and concerns, I am not going to be boycotting Chopped. I don’t think it would do any good for me to do so. Plus, I actually have found that watching the show has helped me remain mindful of some of my religious convictions.

  • Make do with what you have: Even with all its extravagant ingredients, Chopped inspires me to live simply. My best Chopped inspired meals were made because I took stock of what was in the kitchen and then challenged myself to make something delicious out of what we had (I remain very proud of the kale, bacon and pine nut tacos I once made!). Really, the lesson of trying to make the best with what I have applies to much of my life, not just cooking. I don’t need any more stuff in my closet or collections. I know God provides for all my needs every day and I shouldn’t worry. Even in my time management, I don’t need to be stressed about all my tasks, I just need to say “yes” to one thing at a time.
  • Every moment is holy: Speaking of time, on one particularly memorable episode a Zen Buddhist chef amazed me. While her competitors were frazzled and stressed by the limited time, she remained calm and peaceful. She even seemed to be working slowly, as if savoring each second’s holiness. Amazingly, she was able to get her cooking done with seconds to spare and still create beautiful and tasty food. Watching her felt like a bit of a meditation for me. Every moment God has made is holy and God is in all things — even the Chopped kitchen.
  • Food is sacred: I believe the reason shows like Chopped are popular and that there is such an increase of foodies, food critics, and restaurant dining in our culture is because it all strikes a chord with something very innate about our human nature. Food is how we connect as community, it is how we connect to our mother after our birth. Jesus taught us the Truth of compassion, inclusivity, peacemaking and forgiveness over meals and through stories about eating. The summit of our Christian life is also food: the sacrament of the Eucharist connects us to God and to each other as one holy body.

I challenge you to watch Chopped, face your own faith in food and create to your spirit’s desire. Happy cooking and Christian living!

cooking up the goodness of abundance

Did you know there is enough food in the world to feed everyone?  Yup, it’s true.

Yet, we’re in a major global food crisis and people are dying of starvation while others waste food and have health problems from obesity.  Certainly, a lot of what is wrong with the picture has to do with infrastructure, power, distribution, processing and policies.  Plus, we are not farming very well.  And our love for the game Farmville isn’t helping!

Unfortunately, if we don’t change our sinful ways, we won’t have enough food for everyone in just about 40 years.  This past week I learned from NPR what vices are causing us to run short on food.

The main problems, apparently, are due to the way we farm more than the way we distribute the food.  We need to remember, though, that our consumer culture influences the way things are farmed.  What we buy, cook and eat impacts what farmers grow and how they grow it.

No one wants anyone to starve to death.  Christians understand that Jesus is the Bread of Life and the Eucharist is a Blessed Sacrament that unites us together as a body of Christ.  Farming, cooking and eating are very sacred, holy acts.  These basic, ordinary, life-giving acts are powerful and rooted in the Gospel.

We the people, have some good, God-given power. We don’t have to despair that things will only get worse for humanity just because some scientists have predicted that they will. The Gospel gives us great solutions (feed the hungry, share the loaves and fishes, pray, trust, listen, include everyone and invite others to our tables) and we are graced to be real instruments of peace while we live the Good News.

Plus, as stated in the NPR story, the scientists have suggestions too:

“First, stop cutting down forests to grow crops. Second, instead of that, focus on land that’s already being used to grow food but isn’t very productive… Third, use water more efficiently, also fertilizer. Fourth, in rich countries, don’t throw away so much food. In poor countries, keep it from spoiling before it gets to the people who need it. Fifth, and this may be the most controversial thing in this paper, eat less meat.”

I know I have written about all this food stuff many times before.  Food justice is something that is very important to me, however.  I even make it part of the curriculum in my teaching and work to connect my urban students with rural farmers.  My Eucharistic community works to educate and advocate for food justice.  And, today is a global Blog Action Day and bloggers all over the world are writing about food in order to encourage conversations and actions.  I am honored to participate.

http://blogactionday.org

Plus, it’s harvest season- the season of abundance- so we can be grateful for the great labor of farmers and how they bless us all.

I am excited to be spending some time on my younger sister’s farm this weekend.  She’s a great, young, organic farmer and food activist in Iowa who is modeling for all of us how we can work for change in these systems.  In celebration of her great witness, she has even been featured in the Oxfam World Food Day campaign.

When I return to the city from the farm on Sunday I hope to carry with me some good fruits and veggies.  I’ll be using my favorite cookbook, The More-with-Less Cookbook, to prepare meals for the next week and avoid buying any extra food.

I was thinking it might be nice, though, if we did a little recipe sharing right here on this blog.  What dishes are the rest of you planning to cook up using your fall  harvests?  What cooking tips do you have for me?  I’d really like a yummy, non-conventional way to cook up a big pie-pumpkin.

Sharing recipes is fun because it builds community.  For me, one of the great joys of eating is the experience of building relationships.  With every bite we can celebrate the relationships we have with other parts of God’s creation and with one another.  Together we get to work to create the world, the meals, and the unity that God intended.

While we do all this together, let’s remain mindful that we need to be able to live within all extremes and limitations.  We need to balance.  We need to love and help everyone- no matter how hungry they are- know the goodness of abundance.  As we eat, let’s be grateful and celebrate Life.

St. Paul did it quite well, and so can we:

Brothers and sisters:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.

My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.  –Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20

In Dependence

Guest blogger: Steven Cottam

I do not depend on God. Well, I mean I do, as all existence does.  But I prefer to think that really I succeed because I’m a hard worker and a good guy and I’m ever so smart. All I ask, really, is that God not smite me with some sudden tragedy that would prevent me from caring for myself as I normally do. Like Bart Simpson’s infamous grace, many of my prayers over meals, no matter how pious the outward expression, are suffused with the subtext of, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

That feeling that I find inside myself is the reason why I spend this month every year looking upon the Muslim world through the eyes filled with admiration and holy envy. For it is currently Ramadan, and most members of the Muslim community are engaged in a physical struggle against themselves, against their hunger and thirst, during this month’s daylight hours; not to mention an inner struggle in which every fasting believer attempts to raise their ethical conduct to a higher than normal level throughout the month. And I envy them because, despite the hardship involved, it is obvious that throughout this month so many Muslims deepen their awareness of God and their dependence upon the Almighty; they feel God supporting them, and they support each other. It makes me feel that, despite the fact that I am eating and drinking and they are not, it is I who am missing out on something.

Empty plate with lemon wedge

I always find it curious that my tradition, or at least the American manifestation of it, has more or less abandoned the spiritual practice of fasting. Why? I think that maybe we don’t really understand why it’s valuable, or what we’re supposed to get out of it. Often if you ask even those who support the practice, you don’t get a very clear answer. Reasons for fasting always focus on the deprivation. We are told fasting helps check our greed. Or, we are told that fasting helps us empathize with the poor, who miss meals often, and not by choice.

However, while I think those are good benefits, they can’t possibly be the reason we fast. For one thing, if they were, why should poor Christians fast? They already know what it’s like to miss a meal! Yet, in both Islam and Christianity, fasting, like prayer and almsgiving, is universally proscribed. What’s more, in the tradition of the early Church, when most of the people were far poorer than we are, fasting was far more widely practiced. So, again, why?

Here perhaps we can look to the Muslims for help. In the Qur’an, the reason given for fasting is to increase our taqwa, an Arabic word perhaps best translated as God-consciousness. The point of fasting is to make us aware of God’s presence. This is actually very similar to the view of fasting we find in the Gospels. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus talks about fasting right before he talks about our need to recognize our dependence on God. Fasting is set to curb the human tendency to become anxious and to assume too much control, as opposed to Jesus’ advice to remember our place and to make room for God. Interestingly, there is only one place in the Gospel where Jesus forbids fasting, and that is in his presence: “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Mark 2:19). Since the point of fasting is to increase our awareness of God, leaving a feasting Jesus at table to go and fast would actually be counter-productive.

I think fasting is so ignored because we focus on what we lose, not on what we gain. We’re spiritual cynics, flinching at the great cost incurred for gaining God-consciousness, but ignoring the reward. We focus on the price; we ignore the value. In my own forays into fasting, stumbling and tentative as they have been, I have always felt at the end that I gained far more than I lost.

So next time you feel you have earned all you have, and you hold your head high at the thought of your own mighty and terrifying independence, skip a meal. Skip two. See how much more profound your awareness of your dependence, and the corresponding humility before and gratitude toward God, grows when you not only comprehend, but feel in your very flesh, your own finitude.

And in the meantime, make sure you shoot a “Ramadan Mubarak” to your Muslim friends and neighbors. There is no greater evidence of the grace of fasting than that most of these men and women, abstaining from food and drink on a hot August day, become neither grumpy nor sullen but rather evermore cheerful toward people and prayerful toward God.

This week’s guest blogger is Steven Cottam, a friend, youth ministry partner, and one time cooking club co-member of Sister Julia’s from Catholic Theological Union, where he currently studies Theology and Interreligious Dialogue. He spent some time living and serving at Andre House Catholic Worker House in Phoenix, and currently teaches Religious Education at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago’s Chinatown.

Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/616419

living simply to build community

You’ve probably heard the saying: “Live simply so others may simply live.”  Different sources credit the phrase to different wise people, like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa. Either way, it’s a good mantra and the saying totally carries weight.

Lately a new, yet similar saying has been rattling around in my consciousness:  “Live simply so communities can simply survive.”  It’s not as poetic but I think it’s just as true and powerful. Plus, I made it up (I think) so that adds to its awesomeness. Just kidding!

Anyway, in my recent summer adventures I have been encountering this simplicity truth in a variety of ways. It’s not new stuff to me; I think about it lot.  The circumstances of life, however, just really seem to rub my face in my convictions sometimes.

Last week while I was working with the Peacebuilders Initiative I was blessed to accompany a group of teens on their ministry site visits to the White Rose Catholic Worker here in Chicago.  My friends at the White Rose totally seem like ordinary Christians to me. They dumpster dive, grow and preserve their food, give things away freely, advocate for justice, pray a lot, share everything (including their home with strangers)  and compost and recycle all their waste.  Yet, the teens kept talking about this way of life as foreign to them. It was a reminder to me how my preferred way of life (service combined with sustainability mixed into activism, grounded in good Catholic prayer) is actually quite radical.

Sometimes I forget how my vocation and passions have made me into a counter-cultural creature.  The thing is though, my consciousness doesn’t really make it into an option for me, but a necessity. There’s a fire in my belly that burns me right into action. I live the way I do- and am always seeking to increase my sustainability and simplicity- because it seems to me to be the way we need to live.

When the Peacebuilders and I visited my Catholic Worker friends last week, their community did a really terrific job of organizing programming and hands-on actions in order to help the teens gain an foundational understanding about why people choose to live simply as they do.

One day we watched this video together and discussed how environmentalism is intertwined with Gospel living:

The video left me feeling embarrassed for a variety of reasons.  It feels overwhelmingly inevitable that I cooperate with the systemic injustices related to consumerism. I don’t mean to, I don’t want to. I just seems to happen, I’m sorry.  (I feel like a whiner as I confess this sin, blah!)

But then, I know about alternatives to cooperating with the mainstream.  And I try to choose them as much as possible.  Some of the most basic ways to live simply have to do with food.

My friends at the Catholic Worker House took our Peacebuilder group to their organic farm for some good-old-fashioned labor last week and I was overjoyed (seriously!) to be placing composted manure around plants and weeding veggies.  I was also amazed while I heard the teens say that they had never done anything like it before.   Again, I was reminded that it is sort of a radical thing to grow one’s own food now days.

Then, on Tuesday of this week I was was again doing labor and bonding with Earth.  I helped my sister box up veggies from her farm for her CSA business. As we weeded, harvested, packaged and delivered foods to people in her community I couldn’t help but think the whole thing felt sort of silly- we were working so hard to feed people who also had good land to grow food. My sister echoed my thoughts as we drove around (and wasted fuel) and made deliveries.  She said she’d welcome competition and wishes that CSAs were more ordinary, as it is necessary for us to develop community through local economies. In the same way, I prefer that we’d revert to a culture of neighbors creating hand-made crafts and food for each other. The earth seems to be begging for it.

Let’s do it, Christians.  Let’s free ourselves from bills and material abundance, and live simply so that we are closer to the earth and our neighbors. Let’s build community by sharing in the responsibility of sustainability.  Let’s live life to the fullest and love one another.  The bible tells us to, plus our brothers and sisters far and near need us to help build their communities, not harm them.

As my sister, the farmer, said here, eating food (like all simple actions) is something that connects as a community, no matter where live.   So, let’s connect by living simply. God help us, Amen.

this is HARD

Guest blogger Jerica Arents

This Lent has been, for me, a choir of resounding “no’s”.  As part of a Catholic Worker community, we try hard to live in more radical ways, attempting to fashion our internal dialogue in patterns that deliberately put first the poor and the planet.  And, along with my six housemates, I wanted to have a bold Lenten fast this year.  I wanted to challenge my preconceptions about fasting and discipline and prayer.

 

So we made communal commitments to fasting from sugar and high fructose corn syrup (and cane derivatives), to withhold our consent from the incredibly alarming human rights abuses of the sugar cane industry and the unsustainable and toxic nature of high fructose corn syrup.  We gave up plastic, to remind ourselves that every single piece of plastic we consume and discard will be on our Earth for at least the next million years. And we gave up electricity on Sundays, as a reminder of our culture’s dependence on fuel, to stand in solidarity with billions of people in the Global South, and (most importantly) to intentionally choose rest with others in community.

 

sugar spoon

I was excited about the communal fast until I recognized how hard it was going to be.  To be honest, three weeks into Lent feels like decades.  The sugar thing was fun until I grasped the reality that high fructose corn syrup is in essentially everything.  Nothing processed is fair game.  We can’t eat our cranberries, our dumpstered chocolate milk or our cereal.  All sweets are off the table, along with most baked things, frozen breakfast foods, or items that would have historically satisfied one’s sugary cravings.  The plastic thing has been downright hilarious (have you ever taken your own Tupperware into a restaurant, inquiring whether they would serve your meal in it?).  I’ve found that it’s next to impossible to go to a grocery store and find anything not wrapped, covered or sealed in plastic.

Outside of the inconvenient choices, the most integrated part of our Lenten fast commitment is our Sunday energy fasts.  Last week, I read for hours with a flashlight in the dark, leaving me feeling more like my insomniac 12-year-old self than a spiritually-disciplined adult.  Our house seems eerily quiet as we eat cold food all day and shake off our coffee-less mornings, ignoring the phone and unplugging our computers.  But the beauty of the energy fast is that the Sabbath has never before felt more like a Sabbath.  We seem to enjoy each other without the doldrums of daily distractions, getting lost in song-singing and music-playing well into the night.   We actually rest.

Perhaps the greatest gift of Lent is remembering – being reminded, constantly, the ways our individual choices crucify God’s people and Creation everyday.  I’m learning more concretely that standing up and saying “no” – for however long a time is helpful – is really a lesson in saying “yes”.  We vote instead for worker’s rights, an end to the wars, and a break for the replenishment of the planet.  We’re saying “yes” to the creative energy of community.  And in that, we end up choosing the life of the world we’re trying to build, over the death that otherwise seems to be all around us.

Read this week’s guest blogger’s first Messy post.


“Plastic” photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/690898 “Sugar” photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/76944