Finding St. Francis and choosing to stand on the margins

It was early 2013 and I was fresh from three months of formation with Franciscan Mission Service. I had just arrived in Bolivia, South America, to live and serve for at least the next two years as a Franciscan lay missioner.

I had spent the autumn months of 2012 in daily classes learning about Franciscan spirituality and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In those sessions, I learned about Francis’ example of living as “minority,” a spiritual posture in a “downward direction” always drawing closer to those on the margins.

St-Clare-St-Francis

I learned how Francis’ example of living as “minority” challenged his followers to live “without power over others.” They were taught to resist positions of power and instead encouraged to be “subject to all.”

He was directly challenging folks with the privileges of wealth and social status to reject their power over others and instead grow in humility and service.

As a white woman from an upper middle class family recently graduated from a large Catholic university, the challenge to live as “minority” seemed to deeply contradict the many privileges that were such integral parts of my identity: white, wealthy, over-educated and formed for years as a leader among my peers.

Yet my spiritual journey was already moving in that downward direction towards accompaniment of those most marginalized in our communities. And the example of humility in the life of St. Francis of Assisi deeply resonated with the spiritual growth I most desired.

In those first few months of transition, I had the opportunity to hear a North American friar speak about his 40-plus years of life as a Franciscan. And I will never forget the main message from his talk that day.

He said, “What is essential as a Franciscan is that every day you look at our reality from the perspective of the poor.”

I had to let that message sink in and each time I revisited it I was invited to let it go deeper, called again and again to ongoing conversion. It is a message that has since become central to my spiritual journey.

I had also recently finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and was immersed in reflections on my own spiritual journey as a woman as well as the experiences of the women in my life — particularly the diverse experiences of marginalization so common to women across the world.

by-Annemarie-Barrett
Annemarie’s original watercolor “You Stood With Me”

And the Church was at the forefront of my mind. I was grieving the many ways that I have witnessed women marginalized in the Catholic Church. I thought of the women who were staying in abusive relationships for fear of judgment in the face of divorce, the women sexually assaulted and/or abused who were isolated by the silence of their faith communities, the women abandoned out of the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, and the countless stories of women that constantly go unheard and overshadowed by the privileged voices of their male peers.

Whenever I gathered with other women, I was touched by the experiences of marginalization that seemed to define each of our journeys. And I was particularly enraged by the disproportionate suffering that I was witnessing among the migrant campesina women I was just recently forming relationships with in that first year in Bolivia — so different from my experience as a white women from North America.

In the midst of these reflections I began to paint what I now call “You Stood With Me,” a watercolor piece that I did not know at the time would eventually turn into a series of paintings reflecting on marginalization, solidarity and love in action.

Five years since I was in formation with Franciscan Mission Service (for which I served as a blogger), I am still living in Bolivia and the marginalization of women I witness in the United States, South America and throughout the world still devastates. And I believe that the Church’s complicity in that marginalization is a crisis worth our attention.

In following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, I believe that we too are called everyday to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

Today — the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi — we are reminded of his example of humility and solidarity and I believe that we are called to examine our own call to conversion, learning to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

But what does that look like in action?

Meinrad-Craighead-piece
The composition of Annemarie’s watercolor series “You Stood With Me” was inspired by this original art from Meinrad Craighead.

In my experience, it has meant first and foremost learning to listen. When I choose to listen first instead of speaking I resist the temptation to express power over others, instead drawing closer to the lived experiences and expressed needs of those facing the suffering firsthand.

When we choose to humbly listen to those who are suffering we are invited towards empathy instead of judgment, accountability in place of denial, and community and connection over fear and marginalization.

When we choose to join with those on the margins, none of us are alone. And in the face of ongoing marginalization, we are empowered to stand together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

Holy Week is here

Here we are!

The Lenten journey is ending and it is time to emerge from the desert and enter into the Paschal mystery.

Holy Week has arrived! Here’s a quick background on these sacred days in the Church year:

 

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

For your prayer and mediation this week, I’d like to share with you a couple of poems written by a fellow Franciscan and my friend, Br. David Hirt:

Bethany

(For Monday of Holy Week)

You came into our life on feet
like dusty heartbeats, beating bare,
your human heart out-pouring love
and life for one whom even death
itself could not keep back from you.
And I have nothing worth your gift;
incomp’rable, to place into
your hands but my most costly thing;
a poor excuse compared with All.
This earthen vessel, feminine,
I break before your dusty feet
and pour its oil, perfumed and rich,
to cleanse the dust from calloused toes
and wipe them, intimate, with hair
that just a spouse should see and fear
I intimate your death. This gift,
this chrism meant for you alone
lifts up its heady scent and fills
this house like prayer, confirming dust
with sanctity and all because
you came into my life on feet
like dusty heartbeats beating bare.

 

 

“water into wonder” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Upside Down

(A Poem for Holy Thursday)

And everything is upside down,
like faces mirrored in a bowl:
an earthen vessel, roughly formed,
that’s full of water while the one
who once was robed, incomp’rable,
in light removes his outer robe
to tie a tow’l, a servant’s garb,
around his waist and stoops to wash
his foll’wer’s feet of traces from
the dusty Roman roads they’ve walked.
Yes everything is upside down
for whom in all this world would like
to think that him whose praise we sang,
“Hosanna to King David’s son,”
should stoop to take a servant’s part.
Oh we would rather he should reign
on high with us at his right hand.
But Servant Lord, incomp’rable,
you call us to remove our pride,
an outer robe, and stoop to wash
all others’ feet: humility,
and thrust down deep our dusty feet —
to take the love you offer us —
into the bowl reflecting you.

 

Read the rest of  Friar David’s poems for Holy Week here

“look up to the cross” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Holy One, Open me to your mystery during these sacred days. Change me and renew me, so I may enter into the Easter season prepared to celebrate and proclaim your Good News with my life. Amen.

 

God make us poor and nonviolent like St. Francis

Happy St. Francis Day!

In light of all that is making humanity hurt far and near—the evils of greed, economic inequalities, environmental destruction, endless war and gun-violence—on this ordinary and holy day, I find that my heart desires to emulate two particular aspects of St. Francis’ prophetic life from 800 years ago.

I am praying for all of us, for our broken and hurting hearts, that we can respond to the invitation Christ made to Francis to “rebuild my Church.” May we all contribute to the reconstruction of God’s reign of peace, justice and mercy. May we all be renewed and converted more closely to Christ, to the people Christ is calling us to be in today’s world.

First, we pray …

that we can counteract greed, materialism, pride and arrogance by totally embracing poverty, just as St. Francis did. The worst consequence of us taking more than we need is the infliction of suffering upon others; stripping them of food and shelter and other basics. Plus, our consumption and waste harm sacred Earth, causing climate change and consequential disasters; more suffering inflicted upon the little ones.

St. Francis’ experience also showed him that greed and materialism create division, cause wounds. A member of the emerging merchant class in the middle ages, his life could have been comfortable and privileged if only he’d joined the family business and become a cloth merchant. Instead, his conversion directed him to become a beggar, living with and ministering to the lepers, the outcasts, the little ones. St. Francis, like Christ, stripped himself of his wealth and made himself poor, gaining freedom in his dependence upon God. His complete embrace of “Lady Poverty,” as he came to so fondly call it, opened him to encountering Christ in the poorness found in others and in himself.

"St. Francis and The Leper sculpture at Rivo Torto, Assisi" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and The Leper at Rivo Torto, Assisi by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Audrey Assad’s lovely rendition of Psalm 23 “I Shall Not Want” is a song worth praying with today. Let us pray that we can all be poor and humble like Christ, so as to come to know the poor Christ in the truth of our poverty:

Second, we pray …

that we can nonviolently respond to the endless shootings, name-calling, bomb-dropping, drone warfare, torture and terrorism that destroy lives every day. As technology advances, the ways we hurt one another only get worse. In the city of Aleppo alone, daily deadly attacks continue to increase, shocking relief workers with more dire conditions, seemingly mocking their false declarations “that things cannot possibly get any worse.”

St. Francis was also familiar with the evil of war and grew into a practitioner of nonviolence. Before his conversion, he served as a knight in the battle between the warring city-states of Assisi and Perugia. Captured from the battlefield he spent a year in prison, dealing with illness and suffering. During his development into an itinerant preacher, he greeted everyone with the Gospel messages of peace, forgiveness and love of enemies in Italian: Pace è bene, Peace and all good. In response to his countercultural message he was mocked and ridiculed. Yet he persevered with love and risk, even heading into the war zone of the Crusades, begging for the wars to end. One of my favorite stories about St. Francis is his encounter with Sultan Malek al-Kamil, a Muslim leader whom he befriended and dialogued with about peacemaking and faith.

photo credit: www.e-zani.com
Icon of St. Francis and the Sultan (photo credit: http://www.e-zani.com)

Emma’s Revolution’s joyous song “Peace. Salaam, Shalom” expresses the hope, faith, and celebration that I believe should be part of all acts of peacemaking:

I pray that we can all embrace true poverty and be merciful and forgiving to our enemies, according to our own call, in response to the needs of world, just as St. Francis did so well. I pray we can love authentically, for it was Francis who said “I have done what was mine to do, may Christ show you what is yours to do.”

I invite you to pray with me too, so we can all respond to the needs of today with great humility and mercy, with bold love that is provocative and countercultural, transformative and compelling. Let us be poor peacemakers for our world today, in the spirit of Francis, in the image of Christ.

Amen!

St. Francis Day Photos

Worldwide Franciscans like me are celebrating the founder of our order today. On the eve of this day, in 1226 St. Francis of Assisi died and went to heaven. Last night we celebrated the Transits to memorialize this sacred story.

Today we remember and honor St. Francis’ story and contributions to the Church. Through his witness 800 years ago, we have all be transformed and inspired.

In his honor and in celebration of this happy day, I wanted to share some St. Francis of Assisi photos from my pilgrimage to Italy in 2014.

Assisi from the valley. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi from the valley. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi City of Peace. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi City of Peace. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis goes to meet the Pope at St. John Latern Archbasilica, Rome. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis at St. John Latern Archbasilica, Rome. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Canticle of the Creatures. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Canticle of the Creatures. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rebuilding the Church
Rebuilding the Church. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis meets the leper. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis meets the leper. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Children of God. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Children of God. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the birds. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (1). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (1). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (2). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis caring for the little ones. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis caring for the little ones. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Happy St. Francis Day everyone!!!

Seeking corners of quiet but learning lessons on love instead

Recently I had a conversation with another sister. During the chat, we realized we had a common experience on our different retreats earlier this summer.

We had each gone to opposite corners of the country and were looking forward to some sacred one-on-one time with God. He found a way to sneak in–to surprise and enlighten both of us.

My friend shared an account of how she had gone to a chapel, hoping to pray in silence in order to spend time with the One Who Loves her (and loves everyone, for that matter), only to be distracted by all the people and the happenings inside: chatting, rosaries prayed aloud, and fussy cleaning and tidying.

Then I told her about my retreat: to a busy lake over the 4th of July weekend, where I foolishly hoped for some solitude and silence in nature. I kept trying to find quiet corners in God’s creation. Instead, I became a little irritated by the noise of speedboats, jet skis and people whooping and hollering as they had fun.

The other sister said she eventually calmed and realized she was actually in an appropriate space to savor God’s presence. God was totally present in the people distracting her silent prayer in the chapel. She felt a sense that God was there, loving each of them. In this awareness she was overcome, suddenly, with a deep sense of joy and gratitude because she felt connected to God’s love for her and everyone else in the room.

My transformation happened gradually. Eventually I realized my attitude had shifted, though. All the people screaming in joy and speeding along on boats began to seem precious to me. I realized I felt happy for them as they had a great time. And, in one sacred and fleeting moment, I felt totally in touch with how God loves each and everyone one of them just for who they are.

 

"Tall trees near Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Tall trees near Trout Lake” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Both my friend and I had certain hopes about how our prayer time would go. We had gone into contemplation seeking union with God and anticipating a certain outcome and experience.

Instead, we experienced little conversions and learned great lessons from God about love. One of the most awesome ways to be in union with God is to love others as God loves them.

Amen!

Like loon encounters

“rowing on Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Like loon encounters 

Communion with the Creator
can come like loon encounters,
when you are simply rowing
through life and enjoying
the ride, then-ah-behold:
the sight of loon dancing, diving,
singing, playing. The surprise of beauty,
of scenery, of simplicity. Many ecstasies
come in these off-shore liminalities
but I must keep rowing, allowing
the beyond-me to be
bigger. Hold me Waves.
Hold me Harmony!

loon community
“loon community” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“loon dance” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Trout lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Surrender to the way

As this water flows
within the container
of Love-lake true-
my self shall surrender
to the way of these loons.
They give into the breezes
of belonging, the diving
of self, of yes.
Their freedom is found
in being who they
were designed to be best.

“looking loon” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“loon school” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Getting ready for the party of my life

For the past three months, I have been happily preparing for the party of my life. This party will include a beautiful Mass, a locally-sourced dinner and a lively reception. The party of my life will celebrate my perpetual profession of vows with my community.

Preparation for my final vows has been busy and enjoyable. But, not everything has been simple and easy. Initially, I was really challenged by the task of balancing community traditions, my own personal hopes and the needs of my guests. Not everything has gone perfectly. I have had to re-learn lessons about flexibility and detachment. I have had to deal with disappointments and then adapt. Most recently, I learned that my friend who planned to offer the reflection during the Mass could no longer come. To this news, my incorporation director responded, “Even the prep for vows is its own formative experience!”

As I prepare for my final vows, I notice that there are certain questions that come up again and again, for me and the people around me.

Like a wedding, but not a wedding 

“How are the final vow preparations coming along?” This is the most common and conversational question I have heard from all sorts of people: friends, family and other sisters in my community.

To this question I like to respond with…

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

photo credit: ishareimage.com

 

Franciscan Bookshelf: A Simplified Life: A Contemporary Hermit’s Experience of Solitude and Silence

By day, guest blogger K.P.—a good friend of Sister Julia’s—reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

For 25 years, Verena Schiller spent a life cultivated from quiet at the edge of the world. She lived alone in a weather-beaten shed on the precipitous edge of Llŷn Peninsula in Wales, battling both the elements and overpowering roar of her own silence. A member of the Anglican Community of the Holy Name and a consecrated sister, she shares her story in A Simplified Life, a book that rewards its reader for the slow turning of every page with a deeply felt sense of the holy struggle of solitude.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Simplified-Life-Contemporary-Experience-Solitude/dp/1848250258

In prose that is as difficult and as raw as her salt-grimed cove, Schiller nudges her reader towards gentle insights about the interconnectedness of our inner and outer landscapes. The book winds together three complementary narratives: the rich spiritual history of the peninsula itself, overlooking Bardsey Island; the natural history of Schiller’s new habitat; her discovery of companion plants, animals, and tides; and the personal history of her journey from consecrated sister to solitary hermit. For readers interested in the ecological obligations of the Christian, the possibilities of practiced silence, or the structure of a life that is voluntarily secluded and driven by prayer and survival, Schiller’s story will be achingly beautiful, meditative in its rhythms and depths.

Two words that have drawn me, slowly but surely, onto my Franciscan path are the following—simplicity and solitude—and Schiller delivers a thought-provoking account of both. Silence … what a bonus that would be! But sadly, I think even at the edge of the world, I’d be pouring forth in conversation with the wildflowers, the gulls and the seaweed—as Schiller occasionally finds herself doing, actually.

This is not a journey white-washed for those (like me) who occasionally luxuriate in the idea of becoming a hermit: Schiller’s story makes clear that this is a life of struggle, but also of incredible purpose and beauty. I left these pages feeling extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these sisters and brothers whose quiet prayers animate the abandoned corners of our world.

As the insects, like the swans: Living the vow of obedience with a free spirit

I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.

I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.

Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…

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

Franciscan Bookshelf: “Following Francis”

By day, K.P.–a good friend of Sister Julia’s–reads, writes, and has conversations about literature for a living. By night, she devours theology, sits silently with God, and pursues her calling as a lay order Franciscan through affiliation with FSPA. Each month she will share a favorite selection from her “Franciscan Bookshelf.”

Like most of the books on my Franciscan Bookshelf, I don’t know exactly how I came across “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone,” Susan Pitchford’s readable but rigorous introduction to the practice of lay Franciscan spirituality, but it is now one of my most dog-eared, deeply-cherished books about faith. Perhaps this is somewhat owing to the way Pitchford’s story resonates with me, particularly: an academic sociologist who describes herself as “scratch[ing] and claw[ing]” her way back to Christianity, Pitchford wrestles throughout the book with how to reconcile her secular vocation with the countercultural demands of her faith, in chapters that detail the aspects of her Rule, including “Prayer,” “Penitence,” “Love,” and “Simplicity.” Now fully immersed in the Anglican Third Order, Pitchford weaves her own (often endearingly clumsy) introduction to the Franciscan way into powerful narratives about the value of simplicity and prayer, the need for radical love, and the pursuit of meaningful work using the life of St. Francis as a guide. Pitchford’s introduction to the “Way” is—by turns—difficult, beautiful, accessible, and nourishing.

Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356
Photo credit: http://www.amazon.com/Following-Francis-The-Franciscan-Everyone/dp/0819222356

On the topic of “Self-Denial,” Pitchford is particularly insightful. Building on Kathleen Norris’s insight in “The Cloister Walk” that “the saints are those who have been willing to go through life without anesthesia,” Pitchford examines the many ways in which we have become accustomed to “anesthetizing” ourselves in modern Western culture: drugs, alcohol, greasy food, cigarettes, to be sure, but also music, movies, shopping, television. By rightly recognizing that the practice of self-denial is often counter-intuitive—if not seemingly irrelevant—to lay religious, Pitchford gently encourages those interested in such a discipline to meaningfully cultivate time and attention for the entertainments which bring us profound pleasure rather than transforming them into background noise. (As she puts it, “I figure if the music is good, it deserves my full attention; if not, it deserves to be turned off.”) Far from lamenting the deprivations of a good life, Pitchford humbly suggests a different version of it: a life filled with the kind of joy and peace that only gratified silence and cultivated attention can bring. And, of course, the occasional, profoundly-felt chocolate bar.

“Following Francis” also speaks to the challenges lay religious face in coordinating the disciplines of their spiritual life with the demands of their secular one. In chapters on “Humility,” “Study,” and “Work,” Pitchford addresses the intersection of meekness and practicing obedience in the context of meaningful employment. The modern workplace is often both competitive and self-aggrandizing, which can feel at odds to those called to lifestyles of solitude, humility, and voluntary simplicity. And yet, Pitchford reminds us, the reconciling of the two can produce powerful opportunities to witness and minister. She (rather comically) describes her search for meaningful ministry as an experience of discouraged unemployment, where everything she understands to be a “legitimate calling” is ultimately closed off to her. Yet she neglects to recognize that, all along, she has continued to write, teach, research, and touch lives. As she describes her realization, “Prayer, teaching, and writing: could this be a life that would be genuinely pleasing to God?” I think those of us called to a more contemplative life can agree that it sometimes feels … indulgent? Irrelevant? I myself have struggled deeply with my vocation as a professor: shouldn’t I be out feeding the homeless? Couldn’t I dedicate my hours to something more meaningful than reading and writing? Yet God has responded, again and again—through spiritual directors, through prayer, through books like Pitchford’s—by reminding me that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, and to fostering truth and knowledge in other, more resistant minds, is a vocation in and of itself. Not a better or worse vocation, but simply the shape of my specific and particular call at this moment in my life. And thus I find helpful and comforting Pitchford’s emphasis on the need for self-reflection in order to understand secular vocations in discerning terms, to recognize the limits of our knowing:

… I think humans have a natural apophatic tendency—an intuitive sense of the limits of knowledge—and serious study can bring it to the surface. Apophatic theology claims that God is so far beyond human experience and understanding that all positive assertions about God’s essence are inevitably misleading, distorting, and potentially idolatrous. Instead of making statements about what God is (the thrust of “cataphatic” theology), apophatic theology emphasizes all that God is not: God is not limited (“infinite”), not subject to death and decay (“immortal”), beyond all description (“ineffable”). Because God so transcends our capacity to know him, apophatic theology stresses unknowing: we can do nothing but bow in silent awe before the mystery we cannot begin to comprehend. I confess I’m more at home in the cataphatic tradition, with heavy doses of analogy (“God is like a king,” “Christ is like a bridegroom”). Yet there’s that undeniable tendency for each little summit I reach to open up new vistas of my ignorance. This makes sense, because it’s only when we push ourselves to the limits of our knowledge that we get a feel for what those limits are.

I feel grateful every day to do meaningful work that pushes me, again and again, to the limits of my knowledge. May Pitchford’s work speak to you as it has to me: a grounded narrative of the transformations that the Franciscan way can bring to your life, work, and prayer.