I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.
I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.
I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.
The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…
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…
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.
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.
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.
We’re in the midst of the octave of Easter—eight days especially for rejoicing—and then we can celebrate the awesomeness of the Easter miracle for many more days.
I have a personality type that loves to be set to “fun” and “joy,” and I love to celebrate the goodness of God as much as possible.
Still, during this Octave of Easter days, I am making an extra effort to do special things each day to keep the Easter party going on. I made a bunny cake one day. I wore my Easter best dress another. Every day I am praying with praise and gratitude. I am refusing to fast, or diet, or deprive myself.
I am focusing on the freedom that comes from the resurrection. I am worshiping and praising God with joyful tunes and abundant Alleluias. This feels especially freeing after all the penance of Lent gave me such a new, fresh start.
God is so good! Let us praise Jesus and thank him over and over for all he is for us.
There are too many thank you’s that I never write.
I am frequently overwhelmed with the abundance of love, blessings, kindness, gifts, prayers and support that are showered upon me. Inequality drives me nuts, even when it comes to blessings. I don’t want to experience more love and support than any other person, yet I know I do. At times, the reality freezes me in a backwards feeling of worthlessness.
I am not very good at receiving gifts and blessings. I have a flawed response. When people are good to me and when people give me praise, I tend to squirm and divert attention. I want to respond to compliments with compliments for others. I want to explain that all the success and fortune I experience is God’s doing, not mine.
Sometimes the hardest thing to say is “thank you.”
When I finally do try to say thank you, I feel so inadequate. I want to write litanies and I want to construct complicated cards. I want to call sisters, colleagues, friends and family and tell them personally how their kindness has not been unnoticed. I want to jot a note for every little thing that everyone does for me: hold a door, run an errand, give a donation, or send me an encouraging letter. I never feel like I have the time nor energy to try to express all the gratitude I am feeling. When I can’t stand that “write thank you to so and so” has been on my to-do list for longer than two months and I finally sit down to make an effort, I often feel like what I come up with is way too overdue and inappropriate. Then, when my thank you’s turn into apologies, I become stunned by the response I hear.
“I know you appreciate it. You don’t have to say so. You are a very grateful person.”
I wonder if my character has stuck me into a cycle. Maybe I receive a lot of blessings because it’s rewarding to give to people who are grateful. Then, I struggle with receiving because I don’t know how to respond. My list of unwritten thank you’s takes on a life of its own. In the end, my gratitude becomes a relational thing and tokens of appreciation are replaced with simple statements. “Hey, thanks for doing that.” “Thank you so much, that was so nice.” “Thank you.” Really, it’s much more personal. Then, I am understood as “a person who is all about gratitude” because people hear me saying thank you all the time. Therefore, more blessings are sent my way because everyone needs to hear “thank you.”
This is a human cycle. Gratitude is a life cycle, and earth cycle.
I am learning: the gratitude cycle need not be complicated, because, really, thank you’s are essential. Thank you’s are like breathing.
“Within this human impulse to gratitude flow the vast cycles of universal reciprocity for everything that is taken, something has to be given in return. If you merely take in a breath and stop there you will die. Likewise if you merely breathe out. Life is not giving or taking, but give and take. This is the dynamic expression of universal belonging expressed in our thanksgiving... Perhaps the greatest gift we humans can offer to the rest of creation is our heartfelt appreciation… Our praise and thanksgiving is as essential a part of life’s give and take as are the cycles of oxygen and water or any other nourishment flowing through the biosphere.” (From Earth Prayers, page 211-213)
I am glad to know that thank you need not be a big deal, because our interdependence is very basic and natural. In fact, I am thankful I am learning this lesson!
Thank you to each of you for how you all help me be the interdependent part of creation I am made to be. Amen!