Being merciful to yourself in the Year of Mercy

Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!

My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.

Photo Credit: http://images.marianweb.net/archives/library/bemerciful.jpg

Here are a few:

  1. Having a thought does not make it true

I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…

  1. Neither repress nor obsess

When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.

  1. I can’t. God can. Let God.

This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”

  1. People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).

When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…

  1. Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.

Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.

  1. God. God. God.

Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:

  • Give everything to God.
  • Increase my self-care.
  • Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
  • Choose to use the elements in my toolbox: prayer, exercise, support and healthy mental (sk)illness (which I wrote about in “Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed”).

And …

I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.

mercy meme

About The Rabble Rouser

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

What if Jesus prayed like this?

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:

waterfall
Image courtesy of tripleblaze.com

The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.

 

hand-reaching-waterI look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.

I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:

 The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.

Dear Abba, Papi

   Take all of this and make it new.

       With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth

             And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,

 The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …

     All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …

I give you my own flesh.

 

They have no idea how gentle you are.

   How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,

    Powerful enough to heal and restore

 Every broken cell

                          Of this Cosmic Body!

lava-flow
Image courtesy of CBSNews.com

So I give you my body, this one life, that your love

     May be released into this time and place

           Like the lava of love that will never stop.

 

Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,

     To reverence each face as your beloved 

         And to bear the suffering and resistance that

               Will inevitably come

     with the grace of your humble surrender,

            infinite faith and extravagant love.

 

I love you with my whole self.

     I give this one life I have totally to you.

dove-flying
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

 

And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.

 

You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

 

May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.

 

Amen.

flowing-river
Image courtesy of usgs.gov

 

Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed

So, this week some depression symptoms have come back.

Fatigue, heaviness, a dull pull at the sides of my mouth, a silent scream in my throat, anxiousness, and a few intrusive thoughts of self-harm.

But, I’m a veteran. I know what to do.

  1. Give it to Jesus.
  2. Increase self-care.
  3. Decrease stress.
  4. Pull out my toolbox of skills.  For me it includes mindfulness, grounding, centering, exercise, contemplation, affirmations, walking with mantras, pushing on walls, calling friends, journaling, healthy eating, support groups, therapy, spiritual direction, and being honest with myself and all my support people.

A few days ago when it was going a bit rough, Jesus and I sat down and had a talk about it. I’m struggling to break out of old coping mechanisms and make a new choice. It feels healthy and I know it’s the right thing to do but dude—it is still physically and emotionally hard!  Jesus said to me, “I got you. I know you can do this. You have the external support and the internal resilience to make this change at this time. And if you don’t, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You didn’t do it wrong before, and you don’t have to do it that way again.” With those words, I felt both freedom from the pain of my past and joy in choices of the future.

For me, my struggles with mental health have always had a spiritual component, and often that aspect’s ignored by the community around me. Some friends and I wrote up a list of what we consider to be the “Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks.” The term “mad folks” is a way to talk back the labels put on us as stigmas behind our backs and claim our own identity in the world, similar to when the word “Black” became more common for African-Americans. I also prefer the terms “mental (sk)illness” or “neurological diversity.” It’s a way of claiming the gifts of the reality that we live with; not pathologizing our identity.

Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks include:

  • the right to have a “dark night of the soul” without one’s experience being attributed to a brain disease or a disordered personality.
  • the right to speak of one’s experiences without fear of harm or recrimination by authorities.
  • the right to not have our spirituality viewed as a product of our diagnosis or as otherwise pathological.
  • the right to appropriate support during times of spiritual emergency.
  • the right to claim our mad gifts within a spiritual community or context.
  • the right to be reverenced as a person of dignity.
  • the right to companionship and affirmation on the spiritual path.

What if these rights were all just universally embraced in every place of worship and spiritual community? What a wild and beautiful world that would be! I dream a place where it’s okay to think you are the Messiah. Where walking in the void of darkness and the fear of demons are believed. Where the daily perseverance to get through a day is not disregarded, but honored and celebrated.

Change-Direction-five-signs
Five signs that may indicate a call for compassion, empathy, understanding and support.

Our “mental health” system may be broken beyond repair. Far too many go without the basic care they need. When I moved to La Crosse, I had to wait seven months for an appointment with a provider to manage my medications. Globally, the situation is even worse. Our old ways of coping and hiding people away just don’t work.

I have found little glimmers of hope and a community of people just like me, dreaming wildly and working for change. Internet community The Icarus Project tries to help us navigate “the space between brilliance and madness” and “transform ourselves by transforming the world around us.” The support groups and daily skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy focus on mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and relationship skills. This is the super tool box of concrete skills that make life worth living again! Also, I have found regular attendance in a Depressed Anonymous group and working the program’s 12 Steps a real way to live hopefully and turn it all over to Jesus, my Higher Power. (I connect with Emotions Anonymous too.)

Signs-of-Suffering-note-in-hand
FSPA actively and intrinsically supports its pledge to Change Direction.

And, my FSPA congregation is actively participating in the nation-wide Campaign to Change Direction to raise awareness of the five signs of suffering and to deter future suicides.

We never walk alone. For me, my mental (sk)illness requires the constant companionship of Jesus, my faith community, recovery community, and all my loved ones. We dream a new world. We dream hope and live bravely into a new tomorrow, each and every day.

 

 

Sunset-Mississippi-River
Mississippi River sunset (courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA)

A new school year and a refreshed legacy

Like many students and teachers around the country, I recently started a new school year. As this new year began to feel imminent, I looked back on my experience of teaching, so far.

I hesitate to admit that I haven’t always loved teaching. Sure, when I started this important ministry eight years ago, I loved it. I was full of passion and energy and idealism. I was going to change the world, one willing student at a time.

Somewhere along the way, however, I felt my passion for the ministry wane. I fell into a bit of a rut and lost interest in striving for meaningful growth, for myself or my students. I recycled lesson plans and techniques, lacking the energy and motivation to try to find better practices in order to meet the students’ needs. I was questioning whether or not to leave the classroom and…

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

The new view from my teacher desk in my classroom. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The new view from my teacher desk in my classroom. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

coming home

Guest blogger: Sister Sarah Hennessey

Family life is messy.  If you are part of a family you probably know what I mean.  To be church is to be family.  To me this means that we are more than some institution or club to belong to; as family we belong to each other.  Our lives weave in and out of each other through birth and death, joy and sorrow, sudden tragedy and daily victories. 

I recently celebrated my perpetual profession as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.  My Franciscan sisters were joined by family and friends from across the country to celebrate a mass I had been planning in my head for years!  Secretly, I had been afraid that if my crazy quilt of a family and my FSPA community and my parish came together in one place that world war three would break out or at least a minor explosion. But instead it was an explosion of joy. 

My five year old niece carried flowers down the aisle with me as I carried a precious lard light.  My home priest presided in joy and song.  Friends sang a psalm I had composed.  I professed vows to the leadership team, received my blessed ring, and signed the official papers.  We processed out smiling and clapping to “This Little Light of Mine.”

To me the day was a homecoming.  As Sister Eileen McKenzie said in her reflection, in Jesus and my FSPA sisters I have found my home.  Home as you know is a complex place.  The people we love the most are often the people we hurt the most.  And as we come to forgive each other we love each other more. 

Henri Nouwen comments on this characteristic of home when he says:

                Community is characterized by two things: one is forgiveness, the other is celebration.   Forgiveness means that I am continually willing to forgive the other person for not being God- for not fulfilling all my needs…

                The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God, then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God.  You can say, “Since you are not God, I love you because you have such beautiful gifts of his love.”

We celebrate the gifts of God in one another, while continually forgiving each other for not being divine and omnipotent.  My family, my true home, is this circle I know of the People of God.  It includes my birth parents and siblings, ninety-six year old nuns, and fourteen year old parishioners.  My family holds a place for the immigrant and the resident, children and prisoners, the suicidal and addicted.  Whatever label sticks to some part of our life, we are all children of God.  Day by day we learn to forgive and celebrate and forgive again.

Santa Chiara praying

This is a poem I wrote and published here last year, on the feast of St. Clare:

pregnant with poverty

she stands up boldly

holding Truth

with “always” piercing her lips

the pure Truth-Light

shields and embraces

her back

covered with brown like earth

she beckons

community to

the table

breaking open Bread

of union

and dialogue with difference

the lesson she teaches

challenges and encourages

us today

we can still seek

to understand

the power

the privilege of poverty

— S. Julia Walsh, FSPA 8/11/10

Have a blessed feast day everyone!!

“Done Made My Vows to the Lord”

Guest blogger, Sister Sarah Hennessey

Sister Thea Bowman sings the old spiritual song.  My vows have already been made to the Lord.  When I was around 12 I first began to really experience God.  That led me to become an active Quaker and to seek God through silence and service.  Somewhere along the way I had a distinct moment when I knew I had fallen in love with Christ and then when I knew I had fallen in love with the People of God.  Both have been essential to my journey.

Quakerism has been described as a religion which is communal mysticism.  Community is essential and I found my love for community soon shaping my choices.  From a Quaker college, to a year as a lay volunteer with Catholic sisters, to teaching at a Quaker boarding school I lived in small groups, prayed together, and sought God through communal means.  My love of Hispanic culture led me to Mexico, from there to the Franciscans and then into the Catholic church, which I experienced as a wider and more diverse community.

Sister Sarah at Mexican Orphanage
Mexican Orphanage with Sister Joyce Blum (I am on the left)

Fishbowl Not Pedestal
At times I feel that formation has turned me inside out and then left me in my confusion to put myself back together again.  Now I look at it differently.  Incorporation demands conversion, but I am not alone.  My sisters are with me, at varying levels of intimacy and personal skill, to both challenge and support me.

Sisters Deb, Corrina, Joanne and Sarah
Together with Sisters Deb, Corrina and Joanne

I entered my Franciscan community after only being a Catholic for two years.  I struggled with the title of “sister,” the public notice and appreciation, and centuries of baggage that were all new to me.  A distinction during novitiate helped me name how I felt about becoming “a religious.”  Being on a pedestal is not helpful to me or to anyone else and some of this relational model still hangs over from our past.  However, I am called to be in a fishbowl.  I have made public vows to Christ and the church and people should be able to look at me and see that I am at least trying to live how I say I do.

Fear and Awe
I feel a prior claim to religious life.  I also believe that this commitment is my free choice.  I am coming home to Jesus, the People of God, and these particular FSPA women through my “yes.”  I believe to make perpetual vows is to live them and repeat them on a daily basis.

I find religious life to be deeply intimate.  Like the cross, the horizontal plane of relationship with others and the vertical call to deep union with God intersect daily.  I need to pause and listen deeply before making this lifetime commitment and I know that listening needs to happen in relationship.

Sister Sarah in Mary of the Angels Chapel
"Listening" inside Mary of the Angels Chapel, St. Rose Convent

When I meet other new members of Catholic orders I am always struck by how there is no fear around diminishment.  Yes, religious life will change drastically in my lifetime.  We have many losses, particularly at every funeral.  But I firmly believe that this is a dynamic opportunity for religious life to remain fed by its source which is Christ.

In making vows I feel my emotions most intensely, particularly fear and awe.  There is no little amount of fear as I commit my life not only to God, but to this community of women and this church.  But I have voiced my fears and they have heard me and they still want to journey with me.  Together “we done made our vows to the Lord.”

Sister Sarah will profess her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 2011. This is her fourth guest blog entry.