Made to make God more present

I am in a dim hospital room, standing at the foot of the bed, a small video camera gripped in my hands. I am trying to hold the camera steady and silence my sobs while I watch one of the most incredible, beautiful scenes I have ever observed: the entrance of a new child into the world.

The woman birthing this child has asked me to be here and record this sacred moment. Before today, I’ve accompanied her to several doctor appointments and listened to her talk about her dreams. I am trying to support her through a lot of changes; she is formerly homeless and now a resident at a transitional living program, Tubman House in Sacramento, California, where I am serving as a Jesuit Volunteer.

The year is 2005, and I have recently begun an application to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Doing so means moving toward a public renouncement of…

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

 

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The greatest news of Advent … and all time!

What if things really are better than they seem?

Often, people talk like we are living in the darkest period of history yet. There seems to be the assumption that if you look around, it’s obvious that things couldn’t get much worse. Actually, the statistics tell a different story. Oliver Burkeman cites a statement released by the New Optimists movement:

People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher.

We are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds — from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying — in steep decline.

Things are getting better!

As Burkeman also suggests, just because total violence in the world is down does not make each gun death a total tragedy. Positive global trends do not mean that we should not keep working for systematic change and improving the world with all our hearts. But, if anything is true about our current age, it’s that while we tend to emphasize the negative, lifting up the good news of all the advancements in our world can be a helpful antidote.

The good news of Advent is similar. Things are getting better for one great reason! The incarnation. God became human and this is the good news of all time.

Image courtesy smallpax.blogspot.com

In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi experienced the love of God in a fresh radical way and his life became a living sign of God’s outpouring goodness. At Greccio, Francis created the first living crèche. He brought together the local townspeople and animals in a cave to remember and celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby. For Francis, the good news of Jesus was central to his life.

Later, Franciscan theologians such as Bonaventure reflected on Francis’ life and his deep love for the incarnation and began to articulate a great Franciscan insight that can profoundly change how we act. For Franciscans, God is not just some abstract being, but God is good, and specifically God is love. From this insight flows the true heart of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. God became human out of love not to fix sin, but to draw closer to humanity and to incarnate the true nature of God which is love. If God had become human just to fix our mistake of original sin, God would be reactive instead of initiator and creator. Instead, God is love. God wants to draw closer to us in love — the true meaning of Advent.

Why does this matter? Our concept of God can affect what we believe and, in turn, how we act. When God is love it’s easier for us to have a vision inspired by hope and joy. The world is a good place and that means we see things differently. For one thing, our task as Christians is not primarily to save others from sin but to spread God’s love, to reach out with our whole being and make the goodness of God more visible.

It’s a subtle shift — God is firstly goodness, not abstract being. God became human to more fully express love, not to save us from sin. But the implications of this shift are far-reaching into every aspect of what we believe and how we act. When God is good we find also that humanity and creation are good. We are the Beloved.

The challenge, then, is to truly believe how precious we are and to see the beloved in our friends and enemies. The challenge is to act: not only as individuals but as communities and institutions as if the good is real, primary, and move always toward building more space for the good to flourish. I look for the good even in my own struggles and find strength in my Franciscan tradition as I discuss in this “AdorationTalk.”

May goodness surprise you this Advent season, even when you least expect it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sarah Hennessey, FSPA

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

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.

 

Remember! The antidote to spiritual amnesia

Recall a moment from your life when God felt very close; when you had a powerful experience of God’s presence. It might have taken place at home, at work, in church, in a classroom, on a retreat or in nature. What do you remember of the experience? How old were you? Where were you? Did it involve others? What gift did God give you in that experience?

The great feast the Church celebrates — the Body and Blood of Christ — places great importance on memory and invites us to remember all the things God has done for us, especially what God has done for us in Christ.

Each time we celebrate Mass, we gather to remember. This helps us to avoid what Pope Francis has called “spiritual amnesia.” When we have spiritual amnesia, we lose our memory of our personal salvation history and our “first love” with the Lord. When we have spiritual amnesia, we forget who we are and to whom we belong, and other things can begin to replace a living relationship with God.

Bible-flower-petals
Image courtesy freeimages.com

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people, “Remember!” (8:2-3, 14-16). “Remember how for 40 years now the Lord has directed your journey.” Moses says to the people, “Do not forget! Do not forget the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” You faced dangers in the desert, and God directed your journey. You were thirsty, and God provided water. You were hungry, and God fed you with manna.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus himself invokes this memory (6:51-58). He tells the Jewish crowds, “Your ancestors … ate [manna in the desert] and still died.” But “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

At the Last Supper, itself a meal to remember God’s saving act in the Passover, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my body. Take and eat. This is my blood. Take and drink.”

And then he said, “Do this in memory of me.”

For many years, when I heard “Do this in memory of me,” I thought of it simply as a commandment to reenact the meal, to have Mass, and to do it often. That is certainly part of it. But Jesus is also saying: I have been blessed, broken and shared. I have given my life for others.

Do this in memory of me.

You, my disciples, must also be blessed, broken and shared. Imitate me. Offer yourself to others. Love others as I have loved you.

Do this in memory of me.

This memory, made present in each Mass, is demanding. It took Jesus to the margins of his society and religious tradition where he loved and showed welcome to outcasts and sinners, and it took him to the cross.

Do this in memory of me.

Who in your life is a witness to a life blessed, broken and shared? Who offers themselves generously to others?

There are so many ways that disciples imitate Christ in this kind of generosity: in the gift of self to family, a partner, children, other loved ones or a friend; in a job or career; in the works of mercy and other acts of kindness done quietly and humbly.

At the same time, how are we called to greater love, generosity and sacrifice in memory of him? Here’s one thought: What bothers your conscience at work, at home, in your neighborhood or in our church? What do you want to do but don’t, because it seems too big to tackle or too big of a personal risk to take on? When we take that first step, the God who has always been faithful to us will be with us.

Remember what God has done for you, for us. The God who has been powerfully present in our lives. The God who frees us, loves us. The One who comes to us in bread and wine to nourish us, to give us life, at each Mass, and always.

Note from the editor: This blog post is a version of a homily that Fr. Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on June 18, 2017 (Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

 

Here’s how to help end gun violence with thoughts, prayers, awareness and action

God have mercy on us: there was another mass shooting in the USA yesterday. Five people were killed, including the perpetrator.  An elementary school was one of the targets.

Once again we have failed, as a nation, to protect life and to shield children from the horrors of gun violence.

When the shooting happened yesterday, it had only been 10 days since the previous mass shooting in the tiny church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It’s barely been six weeks since the massacre in Las Vegas.

As far as mass shootings go, 2017 is the deadliest year in my life of 36 years. This chart is shocking to me.

 

Photo Credit: http://www.economist.com

When I first saw it, I was especially shocked by how the school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut, compared to some of the recent shootings. As far as my emotional reactions go, those are probably the most memorable. What is going on in me, in our society, that I am becoming numb to the horror, the headlines–to the numbers of injured and deceased?

We have much to lament. We have much to grieve, to give to our merciful, loving God in prayer; our God who is so eager to help us heal and work with us to create a more peaceful society.

What is a Christian to do, though? How can someone who takes seriously Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and the Gospel demand to be a peacemaker, get started? How are we to respond in a way that protects all life, that promotes forgiveness and healing? How are we to help all people keep God’s commandment not to kill?

Here are my steps: the plan that is working for me to not stay numb and motionless but instead to keep trying to be a peacemaker in our hurting, frightened world.

It all starts with thoughts and prayers.

Yes; although some may mock our faith and our tendency to turn to God first — and even make games called “Thoughts and prayers” to tease us for it — tracking our thoughts and lifting our hearts to God in prayer is the only way to start.

Let’s listen to the feedback too. If folks tell us that it’s sounds “so profane,” when we say we are offering our “thoughts and prayers,” then we ought to stop communicating with clichés.  Let us turn to God to help us be more creative and compassionate; let’s use our thesaurus for better words. We need to offer our sympathies and kindness, to tell the people of God that we are lamenting, we are mourning, we are sorry.

I find Fr. James Martin’s prayer, “Sad, tired and angry: a prayer in the face of gun violence” especially helpful.

Let us remember though, that prayer is at least half listening to God, to opening our hearts to the Spirit, as Jim McDermott wrote:

But prayer is not just about asking God for stuff, or about me speaking to God. It is more like neighbor kids talking to one another on two cans tied together with string; I talk in one end and hope that God can hear me. But I also listen for what he has to say. God doesn’t just take our dictation. He gets the chance to speak.

Amen, amen. Only God can help us through this mess. Only God can show us the way to peace and provide the strength and grace we need to persevere when we’re overwhelmed. Relying on God and moving forward can be bold. I really like how Sister Susan says it: “prayer is a radical act.”

Education. 

This might include curious, open-minded conversations with those who think differently than you. It can also mean a lot of reading and study, a lot of asking hard questions and pursuing the Truth. (Yes, with a capital T, for Christ.)

Last week, I asked myself a question and came up with a new thought. I often hear people say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I asked myself if that makes sense, if I agree. And, I realized that, although no object can be in itself evil, if it causes death and destruction then we might have a moral responsibility to remove the temptations, to make such an object less accessible. In the same sort of way that drugs kill, guns also kill. We try to make it difficult for people to have drugs, to protect them from harm. Why won’t we do the same with guns?

Obviously, it’s complicated in the United States because of the Second Amendment. But here comes another thing to learn about, in the way that Elizabeth Bruenig asks in her column, “Do we really understand the Second Amendment anymore?”  I’ll admit that I don’t like guns, so it’s hard for me to empathize with those who enjoy collecting them, who believe that they have a right to own them. I sometimes wonder if the Second Amendment is outdated, if it’s a man-made law misused to protect our greed and let us have more stuff.

The other piece of education is seeing the big picture. I encourage you to do your own social analysis of the USA’s unique gun violence problem and consider how we line up with other nations.

Here are some factual summaries that helped me learn:

How bad is US gun violence? These charts show the scale of the problem

When I studied those charts,  I learned that more people have died from gun violence in the USA than in all the wars we have been involved in throughout our history, combined.

1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days: America’s gun crisis – in one chart

My heart sank and I felt to compelled for the dead and injured when scanned that chart.  And, I realized that I know at least three people who have died by gunfire in the past six years. My heart is broken.

America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 17 maps and charts

From those charts, I learned that the easy access to guns is part of the cause for such a high number of suicide deaths in the USA.

Then, we move into compassionate, bold action. 

Even if the facts are overwhelming, let’s get to work.

We must protest the violence and advocate for change with all our might. This editorial suggests some excellent local and national groups that we can each get involved in and other ways to “pray with our feet” and act for Gospel-centered change.  Let’s stand up for peace and model forgiveness and teach others how to act in love.

Here’s one way to act: we can be like the folks in RAWtools and melt down guns and weapons, and hire blacksmiths to make them into garden tools instead. What a great way to create life and lasting peace!

Through the grace of God, and our collective praying and acting, may God’s reign of peace prevail and may we live in a world where weapons are needed no more.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

One nation shall not raise the sword against another,

nor shall they train for war again.

Isaiah 2:4

Amen! 
Photo Credit: http://visit.un.org/content/knotted-gun-sculpture-un-–-did-you-know

Facebook: a contemporary parable

There was a woman who was kind, patient, loving and compassionate. She had a big family. In her later years, in her retirement, she explored new ways of loving and staying in touch with friends and family, especially her grandchildren.

She surprised everyone by signing up for Facebook. In fact, she began to use the platform quite actively. Her friends grew in number. She saw it as a ministry. She promised prayers for the sick and wrote encouraging notes on walls or sent them private messages. She posted many tidbits of wisdom and also spiritual reflections that really moved her. Her posts were always compassionate, positive and hopeful.

She posted so often that she frequently appeared in others’ news feeds. It was interesting to see how people responded to her. Some simply ignored her posts. Others thought she posted too much and unfriended her. Others would “like” a post but didn’t engage it. Others read it and thought it was worth sharing on their wall. Once in awhile, people would really take the message to heartit would change themand the post would go viral. One of her posts had thousands of shares, tens of thousands of comments and a million “likes.”

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Image courtesy of pixabay.com

So it is with the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke to Galilean farmers; hence, he uses the images of a sower, seed, rich soil and an abundant harvest (Matthew 13:1-9). Today he speaks to us in our technological age; people who are connected through email, Facebook and other forms of social media. God is the older woman in the parable who is very active on social media. God is present and very active in our world and our lives, always laboring for us and touching our lives, always loving and freeing us.

How do we respond to these signs of God’s presence and love in our lives? Some ignore it and even go so far as to unfriend God or deactivate their account altogether. Perhaps they’ve been hurt and have a hard heart, closed off to others. Some notice God’s blessings and “like” them but respond no further. We are too busy. The engagement is shallow. Others notice God’s presence, savor it and “share” it with others. Still others let God’s blessings touch and transform their hearts, and even send a note of response. When we are touched by God’s love and share it with others, it can go viral!

God sows the Word generously: through the Scriptures we hear proclaimed, through the bread and wine we consume, through community, family, friends, creation and many other ways. Do we pay attention to God’s presence, God’s Word, in the many ways it comes to us? Are we receptive to it? How is our soil? Do we allow for the necessary quiet in our lives? What is the depth of our response? Do we ignore God, deactivate our accounts, simply “like” or “share” the blessing? Or, do we truly open ourselves to transformation?

Your engagement with “Messy Jesus Business” is evidence of the good soil within you. The Word is bearing fruit in our lives. Jesus tells us that the seed that falls on good soil produces fruit in abundance, thirty, sixty or a hundredfold. It can go viral. Let us pray for the grace to always be open to God’s presence and love and to let it touch our hearts and transform us.

Note from the editor: This blog post is a version of a homily that Father Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on July 16, 2017 (Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

 

Honoring all the souls

It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.

Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.

After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.

To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.

Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.

That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.

On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.

During this sacred month of November,  may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.

Through each gesture and prayer,  I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.

Tending to our wells

I spent part of last night cleaning and peeling a recently harvested pile of wormy rutabagas with another sister. We probably ended up having to compost at least half of what had been pulled up from the soil, because some sort of creatures had created little homes in the vegetables. The waste was certainly disappointing and unfortunate but mostly it all felt very natural — like a healthy part of giving seeds to the earth, tending the soil and then pulling forth food many months later.

Afterwards I noticed that my hands smelled earthy, much like the crispy leaves and the chilly autumn dampness that has arrived in the air.

With such sights and smells in my consciousness, I began to think about all the death and decay surrounding us in the midst of this autumn season. And, the natural ebb and flow of life, of struggle.

It is inevitable, isn’t it? Being human means we have downs, we suffer, we feel anguish. We deal with the weight of despair. No matter how much we try to avoid the cross, reality teaches us that the muck of change is inevitable. Under the weight, our moods and attitudes can falter; we can get stuck in lament. How, then, are we to remain available to lovingly, joyfully serve others? How can we continue to act with kindness when wallowing in despair seems like all we are capable of?

A few months ago, I read this blog post by Sarah Bessey about finding time, energy and inspiration to write. Since then I have been thinking about tip #5 on the list: “Fill the Well.” As she wrote it: What brings you alive? What clears your mind? What fills your soul? Do those things instead of the other things. Take time to figure it out – your list will be different than mine. Write down a few things that you can turn towards to fill the well. You can’t write from an empty well and so whenever you can, fill your well.

Credit: www.freeimages.com

Here’s what I am learning: we must not only fill our wells to serve and witness, we must tend to our wells. Each of us has a God-given, wide-open space; the vessel that contains the life-giving water, the container that holds the elements for our strength. We must know this part of ourselves and know what is really needed so that our wells maintain their shape and abilities. How is your well constructed? Is it chipping and weak in a certain space? How deep is it? What elements of Spirit flow through this space inside of you? How does your well nourish you and provide hope?

What sort of songs must you sing to tend to this sacred space in you? Which Scripture passages will fill you with the strength you need to persevere, to continue serving?

No matter how death and decay may threaten to endanger us, let us remember that God is with us, eager to tend to our wells and fill us with great grace and strength. After all, God has conquered death and is ready every minute to make all things new! Amen.

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken
and mountains quake to the depths of the sea,
Though its waters rage and foam
and mountains totter at its surging.
Psalm 46:2-4

Locked up in different prisons

The heavy metal door bangs behind me, the electric buzz locks the bolt in place. After a pause, another door buzzes and is unlocked, controlled by a police officer sitting near a video monitor in another room. I cross the florescent-lit linoleum and open the next heavy metal door, making my way through this threshold of security.

It’s my first visit inside the county jail. My mind and breath are electric with anticipation. We — the other volunteer I am shadowing and I — arrange the blue plastic chairs in a circle and place copies of Scripture passages, prayers and reflections upon them. Shortly I will encounter my first group of inmates. More than a dozen men will join us for prayer and Bible study.

Driving through brightly colored October woods to the jail, I pondered…

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

Photo credit: (Unsplash/Mitchel Lensink/GlobalSistersReport.org)

Again

I tense up slightly as I see my daughter toddling over to me holding the telltale green and blue box, replete with several cartoon dinosaurs staring up at me. “Me want to do dinosaur puzzle,” she says.

“Please,” I entreat. “Not the dinosaur puzzle. We’ve done the dinosaur puzzle six times today.” I can’t take the dinosaur puzzle again. I could put the Iguanadon and his friends together in my sleep. “Please, pick something else.”

Her eyes and chin start to do her trademark wobble, indicating that the begging is about to begin. “But, me want to do dinosaur puzzle with you,” she implores. I quickly scan the room and realize that my options of finding a better activity are, in all honestly, very slim. Even if I could convince her to do something else, what would it be? Pony coloring back? 3 times today. Dress up tea party? 4 times today. Give a stuffed animal a doctor check-up? 8 times today. She is in the age of learning by repetition, and dinosaur puzzle or not, I am being called to sit and watch her do something slowly that I have already sat and watched her do slowly several times today. “Fine,” I sigh. “Dinosaur puzzle.” “Yeah!” She squeals, and she upends its 48 large pieces onto the kitchen floor and ponderously begins unraveling its mysteries once again.

I sit next to her and bear witness to the saga as it unfolds. I’m not allowed to help, she can do it “all by meself;” I am merely supposed to confirm and encourage, and perhaps offer the occasionally helpful “oh, that doesn’t look quite right.”. At moments like this I am often tempted to retreat into a distraction. I pull out my phone and scan the news. I stand up and start to peruse the mail. But I can’t do this long before I get a small scowly face and a chiding, “Daddy, you not watching.” She knows when I’m not paying attention to her, or am only pretending to do so. “Sorry honey. Ok, I’m watching. Oh, look, you got another piece in.”

In my youth I always dreamed of having the chance to suffer mightily on behalf of others. I imagined I would be a missionary, braving cold, hunger, and every deprivation. I have rarely encountered such trials. However, one cross that I have frequently and fruitfully born is that of boredom.

Boredom is a hardship we don’t often think about because it’s so terribly unromantic. In fact, in our distracted, stimulation obsessed age boredom of any intensity, of any length of time, is seen as a vice. We flee from ourselves and our own thoughts, sometimes to the point of preferring pain just so we can have something to focus on.

In our collective flight from boredom, we frequently commit grave sin against ourselves and others. We ignore our children, because their tedious games bore us. We ignore our parents and the elderly, because we’ve already heard the stories they are going to tell. We ignore the dull or those less educated than ourselves, because their uninteresting conversation wastes our valuable time. Recently I had several parishioners tell me how tired they are of hearing about disaster relief and social justice protests – are we still talking about those things? Underlying all of these is the same subtle lie that is embedded in every sin – I am more important than you. My time is more important than your time. What I want is more important than what you need.

But perhaps the person I wound most gravely when I refuse to endure boredom is myself. For isn’t there something really sad and broken about someone, about all of us, when we stop seeing things for what they are? Every person I meet is a gift from God, is a son or daughter of the almighty. My boredom is caused by my blindness. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… there are no ordinary people. (The Weight of Glory).

Even boring tasks are frequently a chance to converse with God, and to remind oneself of the raw glory and wonder of mere existence. When I too quickly dismiss boredom with an external panacea, I miss the chance to fight through to the other side, where God renews my sight and becomes my vision.

courtesy of Steven Cottam

So I turn my attention back to the dinosaur puzzle… which is coming together, slowly but surely. The apatosaurus is half done now. My daughter’s toddling, repetitious play is just a phase, and the truth is I will sorely miss it when it has passed. My attention is my gift to her, and her reminder of what matters is her gift to me. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I will give it to as many as I can, and I will try to do so gladly. When it is hard I will merely ask God that, like all sacrifices made out of love, it might bear much fruit.

 

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, 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.

The awkwardness of being a long-distance aunt

With an armful of children’s books and DVD’s, I make my way through the glass library door. I feel awkward as I carry these items, as foreign to me as the rocks on Mars. I feel like I should explain that these books aren’t for my children, that I don’t have any.

I’ve been visiting this library for nearly a year, yet I only stepped into the kid’s section for the first time during this visit. I felt like an intruder, like I needed to explain myself, justify my presence there. I guess I felt a bit lost away from…

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the PageContinue reading here.]

Photo credit: Off the Page