Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter’s snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.
Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don’t realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of…
Wendell Berry speaks of the Kingdom of God like an economy in a way that totally burns in my soul and speaks to our world situation today. He describes four major principles of the Kingdom of God:
Everything is included. Whether we want to be in it or not, all of creation is a part of the Kingdom of God.
Everything is connected to everything else. The Kingdom of God is orderly. It makes sense. If you change one thing it will always affect everything.
People, with our human limitations, cannot fully comprehend the Kingdom of God. We cannot know all of the creatures in it and we will never know the whole order and pattern it contains.
And then there is the last principle which really complicates things:
Though we can never fully describe the order of the Kingdom of God, there are major penalties for us if we violate that order. Even though we don’t know how things are connected there are limits, and when we go over those limits we always know it.
This makes sense to me in about a million ways. God’s life and love are continually present amidst the messiness of the world today. God’s creation has an order. It makes sense. And we are inextricably connected with God and all that is. But God is also unfathomable mystery. We cannot fit God into a box! We cannot understand the amazing interconnectedness of the cosmos, our relationships and our own inner lives.
But this is where it gets tricky. When we mess up we know it, but we don’t always know how our untidiness came to be. There is an invisible line we cross, sometimes every day, which lets us know that we are not in harmony with God and the rest of the world. For me, this happens when I fall into desolation and I struggle to get out of bed. Or, when I thought we were best friends and then we are not. The hourly news feed is a constant witness to the violation of the order of peace and justice in the world. And then there is our destabilized climate and its increasing chaos—a global wake up call to the violation of the order of the cosmos.
So how is the Kingdom of God like topsoil? In the same article, Wendell Berry describes how the Kingdom of God, which he also calls the Great Economy, is like topsoil. The dirt in which things grow is amazing. It turns death into life. In topsoil, everything is connected to everything else and this tremendous, life-producing balance is maintained … but we are really not quite sure how this happens. We cannot make topsoil. And we cannot make a substitute for it or replicate the complicated, intertwined processes that make it work.
But then, somehow through misuse, we begin to “lose” topsoil. We cross over some invisible line and the miracle of interconnected life stops working. Topsoil is defined as good quality, life-giving dirt and is only preserved by the careful care of farmers. When we violate the order—when we cross that line—we lose the quality of topsoil and it’s difficult to get it back.
The concrete example of topsoil helps me see my own life and interconnectedness to God more clearly. I am a miracle of life. All around me, life is both infinitely precious and a part of me. I am the child in Manchester, England who lost her life in mindless terrorism. I am the Syrian family bombed by coalition forces. I am the forests lost to mindless industrialism and I am the last Giant Ibis. I am the stars, the wind and the precious dirt that grows life. We are all connected. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ. You are the eye, and I am the foot and love binding us forever together. We are the forces of hope. We are the destruction that seems impossible to stop.
Part of what gives me hope is that things are getting better. Contrary to popular opinion today there are fewer wars, less violence and a bigger reduction in crime rates than just a few years ago.
Every death is a tragedy that should be mourned but when we step back from the emotions and look quantitatively at our world today, the good is winning. Hope is having the last word. Our interconnectedness is a gift and I truly believe that today more people are honoring it than ever before. This means that the Kingdom of God—God’s passionate desire for peace, justice and a world ordered by love—is becoming more visible and more possible every day.
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 Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
Easter has ended. Jesus ascended. The power of Pentecost is nearly here. (We’ll celebrate this feast on Sunday.) What sort of wildness is unleashed into the world by way of these turns in the liturgical calendar? How has the energy transformed us and made us more into the people God has called us to be?
I don’t know. I think we each ought to pray and reflect on this individually and communally and come to our own conclusions.
Yet, I believe in the potential—power is active in the world for we’ve all been connected and created anew by the truth that evil, death and ugliness don’t get to have the last word. Hope, love, resurrection, and peacemaking remain the strongest forces in our lives, in our world.
The Holy Spirit can show up each day (no matter the liturgical phase we are in) and blow where She will, energizing and enlivening us with grace. We realize that if we empty and open ourselves to mystery and wonder the Spirit can blow through us and make music. We become instruments of mercy, peace, hope and love in the hurting world.
We are transformed by God’s activity in us. And our “yes” helps transform the world.
Listening to the news each day continually reminds me that the greatest transformation the world so desperately needs is the construction of unity, the building of bridges over the canyons of divisions. I believe God wants us all to participate in the bringing together of divided peoples.
With our cooperation the power of God is wild and fierce; the Holy Spirit can’t be contained. We abandon our fears, judgments and assumptions. We reach outward to our enemies and realize that they can be our friends. Mercy makes us free.
So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. ~ James 2:12-13
How does this happen? How does the Holy Spirit move us outward and across enemy lines? What is required of us for this to happen?
Certainly, it starts with prayer. The sort of self-emptying surrender that Jesus modeled for us and demonstrated on the cross. The sort of communion with Christ that opens up spaces where we can hear whispers of guidance from God. The widening of our hearts and minds to make space for thinking beyond categories and the edges of boxes.
Then, we are compelled to consider who it is that we think of as “other,” as unlike ourselves. Who and what do we despise and how can become curious about them?
Then, we move toward them. We trust the Spirit to provide the courage and compassion we need. We enter into their world and try to hear their perspective with a great, loving curiosity. All this from a grounded place of playfulness, of child-like love that assumes everyone is good.
As Courtney E. Martin writes:
In some ways, it’s incredibly complicated to have worthwhile conversations about things you care deeply about with people who disagree with you … Part of why we don’t engage in conversations with people who have different belief systems from our own is because we don’t have the emotional energy. Our lives exhaust us. We’re too busy and too frustrated. It feels better to bond with people we know agree with us than to wade into the unknown waters of a psyche that might anger us. It takes real effort and emotional sturdiness to assume genuineness in someone you perceive as “the other.” It takes a resilient naïveté. Sometimes, it even takes a kind of playfulness.
Lastly, if the Spirit is to use as an instrument in this way, we must be willing to change, to compromise. We find common ground and then build new things together in that solid place. This video, which I love, demonstrates it very, very well:
Come Holy Spirit! Make us into instruments of your love!! AMEN!
Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen.
In a few of the less-productive minutes of my day, I play an online Star Wars game on my phone. I have some beloved characters which I attempt to constantly level up: by completing certain challenges, I can make my characters faster and stronger. In the game world I am part of a guild—a group of other players that band together to tackle in-game challenges far too difficult for one player to take on alone. Currently, we are all trying to level up our best characters to advance to the hardest level of guild challenges. While I hesitate to call anything related to a video game “work,” it is going to require some effort for us all to get there. We’re going to have to play smarter, get better, and put in some game time to get our characters to where they need to be. But because we know the next set of challenges holds greater rewards, we are all anxious and eager to do so. The harder the challenge, the more experience and spoils you receive when you complete it.
And lately, I’ve noticed how very different this mindset is from the way I approach my real-world journey. In the game I’m ready to take on the next difficulty; eager for the newest challenge. I want to tackle the hardest quest because I know my character will grow and the rewards will be greater. But in life, I’m constantly trying to get away from difficulties and run from challenges. I pray that burdens will be lightened or lifted, and that obstacles will be magically removed from my path. I avoid difficult people and situations. I try to offload problems onto others. I pretend an injustice I’m staring at isn’t really as bad as it looks, or that at the least there is nothing I can do about it.
That is no way to grow the kingdom, or to build a better world. The tasks the Church faces are huge—and they will not be solved by running from them. Instead, we must run toward them. I must adopt the attitude of “game me.” Where is the next challenge? I want it. Where is the next difficulty? I’m ready to face it. What if, instead of praying for lighter crosses, we started praying for heavier ones? For more obstacles, for greater burdens? What if we did this knowing that God provides the strength for any tasks He gives us? How much more grace we would receive, and how much more we might accomplish for God’s glory!
Believing that by granting her suffering God spares someone else that burden, St. Bernadette gave thanks for every affliction she received. With willingness to suffer she became stronger, more steadfast, more patient, and more trusting in God. And she knew that more of God’s work is done with each slight forgiven; all wrong patiently borne. I wish I could more fully adopt this mindset, seeing my God-given challenges not as slights but as gifts—gifts given to a servant who can be trusted to accomplish the task.
What injustice might you be tempted to turn from and avoid today? Go out to face it! What discomfort could you feel that might advance God’s cause of peace and love? Endure it! The greater the challenge, the greater the glory when it is overcome. My in-game guild knows this. I hope that my real-world guild and I (also known as the Church) can learn to better live this lesson as well.
Steven 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, adorable daughter and 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.
Since I was a kid, good folks started challenging me to think “outside the box.”
In one case, I remember sitting in the shade on a hot day with a group of girls at Bible camp and our counselor offering a puzzle: I am going on picnic and bringing cookies and my glasses. What are you bringing? Can I bring chips? No, no chips on this picnic … The puzzle would continue all week until all of us in the group figured out that it wasn’t about objects or colors or any other typical category that defined what we could bring: we could only bring words that had double letters.
Now, decades later, I understand that playing such a game at Bible camp was not just a time-filler, not just a way to keep a bunch of girls out trouble. Rather, such puzzles were brilliant opportunities to introduce me and my peers to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship: following Jesus’ demands that we think differently.
“We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to “think outside the box” regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don’t always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it.” ~ Linda L. Clader, Voicing the Vision.
Here’s a bit about the boxes that get in the way of following Christ.
In the Kingdom of God there are no enemies because we’ve loved them all into our friends. Death and division don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to pick a political party, wear the latest fashion or obsess over petty things. We don’t have to choose a side or declare right or wrong.
In the Kingdom of God we get to be compassionate, nonjudgmental folks and rebel against the crowds of judgmental people by loving everyone. We get to listen and love and see the good in everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done. We don’t have to fight back or run away when oppression or violence comes toward us; rather, we get to stand up for justice and peace with creativity and compassion.
To be free of these boxes means that we can let go of anything that blocks our imaginations from dreaming up a world where all human dignity is honored and protected, where peace and justice are abundant for every creature, where heaven is known and experienced in this world. To be free of these boxes means that nothing can contain the ways we work for Christ. There are no limits to how we offer mercy, kindness, forgiveness and love. There are no expectations either, for when we allow God’s power to work through us, we can be surprised again and again by what wonders can occur, how goodness can be triumphant.
May the Spirit of God help us escape the box of either/or and give us the grace we need to be active in the energy of both/and—all in the space where we see that every person (Yes, even that person!) is a sinner and a saint, where all of us are works in progress in need of God’s grace.
Then we shall be freed from the limits of our human understanding and imagination. Then we can follow the ways of Christ’s love and can live in joyful awe of God’s work in the world!
“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”
The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.
“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.
For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.
The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrimat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?
Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.
And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.
But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.
I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…
It seems lately that many people around me are having a tough time. Perhaps it’s just my perception but in my day-to-day conversations and my friends’ social media posts, there are many struggling just to keep it together. One symptom I see is a recent proliferation of what I consider to be pretty stoic statements like ‘head down, move forward’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’—the sort of things you say to yourself when you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
A small subset of these sentiments is particularly intriguing: those made with the intent of trying to convince us to just accept the past.
“The past cannot be changed, forgotten, edited, or erased … it can only be accepted. You can’t change your past but you can always change your future. Even God cannot change the past.”
Now, in general, I support these ideas. All too often too many of us live in the past, dwelling on bygone hurts given and received, wishing things had been different. That’s never good, and we frequently must be reminded to forgive ourselves and others. We need to focus on the task at hand—to struggle with the sufficient evil of the day and to work for this day our daily bread. In as much as these sentiments urge us to do the good in front of us, I support them.
And yet, something seems so resigned. So sad. So short of the glory of God and the good news of the Gospel. Frankly that last one sounds like a challenge. I think, in a very real way, God can change the past. God does change the past.
But perhaps God does not change the events of the past, amending instead their meaning so fundamentally that history is, in a very real sense, altered. We need only think of Good Friday for an example. Imagine Jesus’ death on the cross. Imagine the humiliation and defeat that everyone who knew him—his friends, his disciples—experienced on that day. Imagine the torment and agony of Jesus himself. And think about what all of that means now, in light of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection transforms completely the meaning of his death. The cross is now a sign not of defeat, but of victory. It becomes a sign of our redemption. It is our salvation.
When Jesus was raised, did his past change? Technically, no. He still suffered, died on the Cross, and was buried. Yet God’s grace rewrote everything around the event so completely that it’s not really the same occurence anymore. And while the Cross is the most striking example of our faith, it’s hardly the only one. In the Easter Vigil we proclaimed that the sin of Adam is no longer the tragic failure that led to our exile, but the lucky break that called forth our Savior. In the Gospel we see Jesus proclaim the death of Lazarus is not a sign of decay’s inevitability but rather its impotence when compared to the glory of God. By giving the past new meaning, it is altered.
I believe the same will be true of all our suffering, so long as we use that suffering to grow closer to Christ. God’s grace will reach back and alter our perception of those events so completely that we will call them “good,” just as we now call the day of Jesus’ death “Good.” Now we see through a glass darkly, but once our vision clears we won’t even recognize much of what had come before.
In the preface to his imaginative exploration of heaven and hell in “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis expresses the same thought about our current lives in light of our eternal destiny. Speaking about our time on Earth after all things pass away he writes “But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
God can change the past. By giving what we have experienced a new meaning the past is recast. The power and might of God is greater than we can imagine; it’s not only a new start, but a different history. This is one of the lessons of Easter—Christ’s light pours forth everywhere and reaches into every dark space, even those behind us.
Steven 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.
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:
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:
(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.
(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.
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.
An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.
A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.
The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.
The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.
It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.
I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.
Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?
It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?
A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.
Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.
During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.
Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.
In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.
Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.
I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.
By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen!