A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.
Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.
It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.
I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.
I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
My five-month-old just fell asleep. Now I have anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to “get something done.” This phenomenon of sporadic, indefinite hands-free time is something that’s hard for folks who are not immersed in parenting young children to understand. Even those of us who’ve been through it often develop a gauzy memory around that time and wonder why others who are currently in the thick of it have become such poor managers of time. Of course, parents of older kids are navigating the increasingly tricky terrain of appropriate discipline, sibling conflicts, peer pressure, academics … the list goes on and on, ad infinitum! Add being a Christian parent trying to make sense of how to raise children to be in but not of the world in modern society and how to apply that vague but familiar Proverb, “Train up a child in the way they should go …” (Prov. 22:6).
Enter “Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.” As a frequently-floundering parent of young children and a former Catholic Worker (still pining for that fiery embrace of radical faith and community while muddling through mainstream living), theirs is a book that makes my heart quicken. Imagine Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution” meets Daniel Siegel’s “The Whole Brain Child.” Authors Ellen O’Donnell, Ph.D., a child psychologist, and Reverend Molly Baskette, a UCC minister, get it. They have been there as parents as well as professionals.
My sister-in-law put it well: “This book fills a gap that I didn’t know existed.” Where else do you get such a marriage of Christian ideology and child psychology? In what other parenting books will you find the nonviolent principle of “The Myth of Redemptive Violence” paired with psychological concepts in moral and cognitive development in children? It’s a holy, welcome juxtaposition. “Bless This Mess” dives into questions not only of discipline and manners but vital issues of appropriate relationship to money vs. materialism, the transcendence and pitfalls of religious practice, the unavoidable reality of racism, sin and forgiveness and even the oh-so-difficult to discuss S-E-X.
All this wisdom is condensed into easily-digestible chapters with scientific studies, scriptural exegesis, and personal anecdotes to clarify the concepts and bring to life the applications. If this seems like a bit much for a parent on the go to absorb (or, in my case, a parent in the season of lactating on demand), every chapter ends with a recap of “Big Ideas” that gives bullet point reviews of the chapter. One of my favorite features embedded in each chapter is a breakdown of how to apply the information based on the developmental stage of your child. Whether you are parenting a preschooler, a high schooler or anything between, there is something to help you tie the information to the questions and challenges of your particular life phase.
There is an element of the book that needled me throughout my reading. The authors vociferously name themselves as “progressives,” anticipating a reader who does the same. True as that may be, my life has been blessed; peopled with friends and family that span the political/religious spectrum. While many of them will feel attracted to a book custom-made for progressives, others will feel immediately excluded, especially because that terminology is the main feature of the introduction. Right from the beginning, there is political territory drawn to what could otherwise be a genuinely inclusive text. Rather than emphasize what camp they fall in, I would have preferred the authors keep their focus on what the content itself makes evident: here is a guide to parenting as scientifically informed and spiritually grounded beings, Christians who are aware of their place in a wide, varied and shared community. While the authors adeptly fill a gap in parenting literature, I can’t help but think they missed an opportunity to build a bridge. It’s hard to avoid the rhetorical shortcut that words like “progressive” and “conservative” offer to us as writers. Hopefully, creative solutions put forth by thoughtful people of faith directing their energy and insight into that problem can fill the gap.
Of course, O’Donnell and Baskette are well aware that they are not perfect, either in book-writing (though it comes well-nigh!) or parenting. And they encourage each of us to recognize and accept our own imperfections, allowing ourselves AND our kids to be “good enough.” We cannot be perfect guides to our children, not only because we are imperfect beings, but also because we are walking different paths. Even though we precede our children in age and, hopefully, wisdom, our history does not provide an exact roadmap because each of us walks our own road. God has made each individual unique and set them on their own unique journey in the midst of this blessed, messy community of creation. Be that as it may, on this journey as a parent, I am grateful for the arrival of “Bless This Mess.” It stirred in me a latent spark to be not just a good parent and Christian and person, but one who is fully alive, embracing the mystery of each person with whom we are privileged to share life and responding to them with love.
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
It’s been two months since our family abruptly said goodbye to the mission we were serving in Honduras.
We left because our five-year-old daughter came down with dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness that becomes even nastier if contracted a second time. In someone who has already had the illness, a second exposure can result in internal hemorrhage, shock, and death. The risk of these outcomes is greatest in young children.
As parents, we didn’t want to take that risk.
I’m pretty sure no parents want to take that risk … But many simply don’t have a choice in the matter.
Poverty in Honduras is both stark and pervasive. According to the World Bank, 66% of the country’s citizens live in poverty and one in five rural residents live on less than $2 every day. Our family felt called to international mission work because we wanted to accompany these beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
In college, I would have said we wanted to be “in solidarity with the poor.” But as a 34-year-old mother, I know better.
Because we could leave.
If we ever felt like the risks of our mission became too great, we could simply pack up our suitcases and go … which is precisely what we did. As soon as our daughter recovered from dengue, we bought four one-way tickets out of Honduras and flew home to the United States, away from the risk of a secondary infection.
I know this was the right decision, and I don’t feel guilty about it, but I do feel angry and sad that most of the world’s mothers don’t have the same option. They can’t simply buy a plane ticket and fly away from whatever threatens their children, whether it is dengue fever or gun violence or political instability or “just” diarrhea (which is the leading cause of death globally in children my daughters’ age).
Options are privilege. Nothing makes that clearer than living among people who don’t have any.
I open a full refrigerator, and I think of all the families in Honduras who eat just one simple meal of tortillas each day. Their bellies are never truly full. I research school districts in areas to where our family might move, and I think of the many children throughout rural Honduras who lack access to basic education. I read a story about victims of horrific crimes in Honduras, and I think about the luxury of avoiding violent Honduran neighborhoods and never going out past dark (which our program ensured).
I think about all of my options. And I think about my privilege.
I have yet to meet someone who has challenged our family’s decision to end our mission in Honduras early in order to protect our daughter’s health. When I explain the situation to people, they usually respond with something like: “Of course you had to come home — you were being a good mother!”
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor …” (Zechariah 7:9-10)
When I hear the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, I try to imagine what it would have been like if my daughter had been ripped away from me as we boarded our plane to fly home. I try to imagine what it would be like to be treated as a criminal for following my most primal maternal instinct: to protect my children.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine.
That’s because I’ve never run out of options in the way families at the border have. We left Honduras out of an excess of caution: my daughter might get dengue again and dengue might progress into hemorrhagic fever and we might not be able to get her to a hospital in time to treat it. We left Honduras because we felt it was too risky for our daughter to continue living there.
So why am I congratulated as a good mother for fleeing a potential health risk while others are condemned for fleeing far worse?
I’m pretty sure it has to do with the privilege of fleeing that risk on board a comfortable Boeing aircraft, rather than on foot at a dismal border crossing.
And I’m also pretty sure Jesus has something to say about this contrast in privilege:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Nicole Steele Wooldridge recently returned with her husband and two daughters from mission work in Honduras. They spent nine months living and volunteering at a children’s home/school/medical clinic called the Finca del Niño. You can read more about their family’s experiences in Honduras (and donate to their solar energy project!) at www.lifeonthefinca.com.
In the stretch of some days, we switched over from Resurrection joy and fiery feasts to ordinary time. (At least, according to the Church calendar that guides my contemplation.)
Holiness, light goodness, hope, love, transformation: all these energies are offered to us on this side of linear thinking and time. Yet, the God we know and love is bigger than the limits of our human understanding. This love invites us into a mystery that remakes us each moment, through each breath.
The Psalm (104) says: When you send forth your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the Earth.
The Spirit is being sent upon us constantly. Over and over we are created. Again and again, the face of the earth is renewed. The nature of the Spirit doing all of this is fire, wind and the flight of doves. It’s forceful, fierce, and moving. Not still and rarely subtle.
Yet, we are stalled by our lack of faith; by our fear of the Spirit’s fire and force, it seems.
Our faith in God’s power is corroded and corrupted by the world’s lies, by matters that are unGospel: security, strength and an obsession to protect our things. This is the trouble I encountered in a quick conversation with a man before worship on Sunday. As I aimed to prepare my heart for Pentecost Mass, I heard a suggestion that I ought to carry a weapon when I go to the margins of society, into the corners where street violence is a regular thing.
Such suggestions are due to the stalling to truly change our ways and steward the sacred gift of life and Earth we’ve been given — as named by the prophetic and powerful voice found in Greta Thunberg.
If we truly allowed the Spirit to change us — to create us — we would be burned by the fire, I believe. We would wear the scars of our transformation, just as the Risen Jesus and Body of Christ bears the scars of our salvation. Our flesh wounds would influence how we carry our bodies around each day. Feeling the impact of our faith in the Spirit’s power would mean we’d really believe in the Gospel:
“Lay down your life.” (John 15:13)
“Put down the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
“Love your enemies …” (Luke 6:27-36)
“Take nothing …” (Luke 9:3)
“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)
For as Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49).
I am convinced, dear friends, that in these evolving (and yet ordinary) times we must trust and pray and have strong faith in the Spirit — with the possibility alive that good faith is the stuff of orthopraxy, not so much orthodoxy. For like the Spirit, our faith is shown through movement and bold acts.
If we are totally alive in the Fire, we will be formed by a type of freedom that makes us wild and brave. We’ll be weapon-free peacemakers fiercely giving our lives and acting boldly as instruments of true hope.
Let us do this, Church! Let’s act as instruments of the Fire, for as Greta Thunberg has said, it is through our actions that change is made: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Amen!
As the calendar pages turn, it is a good time to pause and consider how God’s graces have been at work in the past year. It is a time to give God thanks and praise, to honor the sacredness of God’s holy time. (If you’re in the La Crosse, WI area you can join my community for one of my favorite prayer services “A blessing of time” at 6 p.m. Central tonight. Information is here.)
As far as the messy goodness of this blog goes, we’ve made it to our 8th birthday, gained many more partners in the Gospels mess and readers (welcome!) and prayed through some tough times in Church and society.
The top 5 Messy Jesus Business posts in 2018 captures a bit of the struggles of this past year, how Christ is tending to the messy places.
The most popular post was a prayer for the students so horribly harmed and murdered by gun violence, particularly those in Parkland, Florida.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Christ, hear us. Christ, graciously hear us.
For our failure to protect children, God, have mercy.
For our failure to elect leaders who protect lives, God, have mercy.
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy. . . . (continue reading here.)
Following close behind in the #2 spot, was another response written to a major social sin, the PA Grand Jury report about sex abuse and coverups by the Catholic Church.
Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.
You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.
This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.
This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is. . . (continue reading here.)
The third most popular Messy Jesus Business blog post in 2018 was a recent reflection written about the struggles and challenges of the Christmas season.
Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. . . (continue reading here.)
The 4th most read Messy Jesus Business blog post was a vulnerable story of witness to the pain of mental illness and its influence on prayer.
It may have been one of the loneliest moments in my life. I was alone in a small, bare triage room with only an examining table. An armed guard was posted outside the door. My clothes had been taken from me and I was wearing a flimsy gown that opened in the back. I was barefoot. I stayed like this for two and a half very long hours. I felt totally alone.
I had just checked myself into the emergency room for depression. Through years of struggle and ups and downs, I had reached a low point. I did not feel capable of keeping myself safe so I turned to hospitalization. What I didn’t know was that in this moment of crisis, while I waited to be examined and for a room to open on the unit, that I would feel so utterly alone and abandoned.. . . (continue reading here.)
Lastly, the fifth most popular post on Messy Jesus Business in 2018 focused on the complexities of being part of a privileged nation, the United States of America, even while so many people lack basic human rights and struggle for freedom.
Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.
Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American. . . . . (continue reading here.)
Thank you for being part of the mess with us! Thanks for honoring the ways that God is at work in the cracks and hard places! Thanks for helping us magnify the ways that light does, somehow, shine in dark places by sharing these stories and reflections with those you know and care for.
May we all know Christ’s light, healing and peace in 2019. And may we all tend to broken and messy places bonded as brothers and sisters in Christ. Amen.
It’s indisputable that today’s signs of the times point to heartache, injustice, division and confusion. The truth seems to be debatable. The persecutions of the little ones — from immigrant children, refugees, victims of natural disasters and targets of sexual assault; those who are on the margins — often are the ones who bear the brunt of the pain.
Today, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 2018, I am not going to write volumes comparing and contrasting the 1200s with the present time. But I would like to suggest that the legacy of St. Francis — and particular Franciscan values — offer a formula for Christian resistance.
Francis reacted to much of the injustices occurring around him by behaving countercultural, by responding in ways that were opposite to the status quo. I believe that we could do the same by fostering the values of joy and humility within ourselves. To do so is radical resistance, a response to the wrongs in our time.
The headlines can be discouraging, can cause us to feel weighed down with despair. Adults mock those who are hurting in ways worse than children on playgrounds. The poor and elderly are dying in floods, earthquakes, fires. More women are speaking the truth of how they have been abused, violated. With such facts spinning around us, it may be only natural to be down.
Yet, the Franciscan way to resist the gloom and despair is to expand the goodness, to rejoice in the sweetness of God becoming part of the mess through the Incarnation. This is not a blissful, Pollyanna happiness but a refusal to let the negativity discourage us or overcome us. It is a deep joy because God’s goodness is greater than any sorrow. This was the spirit of my community’s assembly this past June: we started A Revolution of Goodness, so that goodness could overtake the awfulness corrupting hope and joy around the world.
For us Franciscans, the perfect joy persists no matter how awful the circumstances. God’s goodness provides a zest deep within.
Here are some words from St. Francis of Assisi, regarding the meaning of true joy:
Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, “What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.
Humility and Poverty
Like Francis, we live in a society that puts the rich, famous, and accomplished on pedestals. We love to celebrate the wealth and might of the rich. The image of success that we are fed is often a scene of materialism: a nice house, car and tons of stuff. Such greed for power and wealth is dangerous to our relationships, our civility and our planet, though. What is the way to resist?
St. Francis’ response to the pressure to become wealthy was a radical renouncement of money and power. Francis literally stripped down the wealth from his cloth merchant father, becoming naked in the public square. He took on the clothes of a poor man. He taught his followers to go the margins to live with and serve the lepers. He embraced poverty and humility, wholeheartedly, insisting that brothers forming community with him to call themselves the Order of Friars Minor. This Franciscan value of is often called minoritas by those of us that are Franciscans.
In today’s world, we can resist the greed for wealth and power and instead embrace the Franciscan values of poverty and humility by becoming downwardly mobile. Instead of working to associate with the elite, we turn our attention to the little ones, the poor and marginalized. We serve and spend time with the weak ones who are often ignored, aligning our selves with them on the streets; in shelters, soup kitchens, prisons and detention centers. We become smaller and lesser in the process as we pursue the chance to serve others instead of being served.
Here are some strong words from St. Francis of Assisi challenging us to grow in humility:
Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.
And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you, together with them, have crucified Him and are still crucifying Him by delighting in vices and sins.
In what, then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge, knew how to interpret every kind of language, and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. For, even though someone may have received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom, one demon knew about heavenly matters and now knows more about those of Earth than all human beings.
In the same way, even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things.
But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition V)
Franciscan joy and humility are not the only ways to resist the injustices corrupting our current society; peacemaking, contemplation, and continual conversion are also good Franciscan values to influence us. It actually seems that joy and humility will naturally grow in us while we pursue peace, contemplate God’s goodness, and develop into who he is calling us to become.
Franciscanism is Gospel living, after all. And Gospel living itself is a constant turning to Christ. We follow Jesus as we promote the peace and justice that comes from him. We love our enemies. We decrease so God can increase. We spread the Truth of love.
These are radical ways to behave. We are Christian resisters in the style of St. Francis of Assisi, boldly living with joy and humility. May it be! Amen.
“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”— “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)
Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.
We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.
Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.
Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.
As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge, we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:
133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).
134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.
135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.
Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.
As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.
Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here. Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.
. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.
Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .
As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.
No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.
Children in traditional Hasidic Jewish attire run joyfully on the playground. Some of their playmates speak Spanish, others are Anglos with bobbing blond hair. Multiple languages float through the August air under the music. A Mexican band sings and strums its guitars as the sequins on the band member’s sombreros glitter in the sun. I sit with hundreds of people at picnic tables, munching food made by our neighbors: tacos, shish kabobs, falafel, pelmeni, borscht, pierogies, Maid-Rites, venison and pie. There is a sacredness to the event, a holiness to this community. This, I think, is what the reign of God might look like.
But this is not heaven. It is…
[This is the beginning of an article I wrote for America. Continue reading here.]
I nearly skipped the liturgy. I almost didn’t head out into the cold night.
After two full and exhausting days at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I wasn’t sure if I had any energy to interact with another person, especially any of my literary heroes.
Yet, I made my way through the slushy streets and into a dimly lit restaurant, with a copy of Presence clenched under my stiff arm. I found a seat, snug between strangers, tucked tight into rows of chairs facing a simple microphone and small table.
Others stood on the edges of the room, sipping wine and eating hors d’oeuvres. I looked around the space, and felt too shy to offer my customary grins and waves to any face I recognized, because my body was tight with the feeling that…
On Sunday, I stood in a Church parking lot with about a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation. I held a pile of paper plates under my arm, a black marker in my hand. The youth all stood behind a line, listening to me as I described their task: moving as a team to another line many feet away. The challenge was my version of the team building game, Stepping Stones.
“That line, over there, represents the Kingdom of God that you are called to build up. Right now you are in Church on that side of the line, but you must move outward, as a Christian community. You will venture out into a world where the focus is often not on the things of God, where you are often pressured to be someone you are not called to be, someone who is selfish and greedy and mean. Instead, you must be a community and work together and not fall into temptations. (If anyone in your group touches the swamp of sin, then you all must start over.)
“All you have are these stepping-stones, representing the Christian practices that keep you strong, faithful and focused on Christ. If you let go of any of these practices (if you are not touching the stone as you move forward) then you cannot use the stepping-stone; the hungry sharks (your confirmation sponsors standing over there, watching on the sideline right now) will snatch them up.
“In order for you to have these stepping-stones available to you, I need to hear you name a Christian attitude or action that will enable you to have strength, to build up God’s kingdom and remain on the path of holiness. What do you say?”
The teens started to name typical Christian behaviors. I wrote each one on a plate and handed the plates to them one at a time, so they could use them as stepping-stones to help them move to the other line.
“Go to Church.”
“Be nice to people.”
“Read the Bible.”
“Good, good. What else? You have more plates here that could become stones if you say more things that Christians do.”
What was said then totally surprised me, even though it was absolutely right.
The next day, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” was published; it means “Rejoice and be glad!” As I read the exhortation, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about the teens who are about to get confirmed and our discussions during the retreat. It was very clear that they already understood the universal call to holiness; now my prayer for them is that they will boldly follow that call, no matter how messy Gospel living may be.
I hope we all do.
What follows are a few highlights from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” sorted into categories I made in order to highlight how moving on the path of holiness and living with joy is often messy, challenging work. As we live this way, let us rejoice!
“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14)
“That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” (#20)
EVEN SAINTS MESS UP
“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (#22)
“May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.” (#24)
GOD IS IN THE MESSY PLACES
“Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” (#42)
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.” (#75)
“A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.” (#76)
HOLINESS CAN REQUIRE MAKING A MESS
“Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25).” (#90)
HOLINESS IS ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED, GETTING UNCOMFORTABLE
“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (#98)
“For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease. Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough. The bishops of Canada made this clear when they noted, for example, that the biblical understanding of the jubilee year was about more than simply performing certain good works. It also meant seeking social change: ‘For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.'” (#99)
“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” (#101)
“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves. We will find it hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need, unless we are able to cultivate a certain simplicity of life, resisting the feverish demands of a consumer society, which leave us impoverished and unsatisfied, anxious to have it all now. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters. Yet even amid this whirlwind of activity, the Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life.” (#108)
“Such inner strength makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good. It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God (pístis) can also be faithful to others (pistós). They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction.” (#112)
“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’” (#120)
“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite. His compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation. Let us acknowledge our weakness, but allow Jesus to lay hold of it and send us too on mission. We are weak, yet we hold a treasure that can enlarge us and make those who receive it better and happier. Boldness and apostolic courage are an essential part of mission.” (#131)
“God is eternal newness.He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.” (#135)
HOLINESS MEANS ENTERING INTO THE MESSINESS OF GROWTH
“Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.” (#134)
“Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil.Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for ‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents … Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.'” (#163)
“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways.Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everything be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (#172)
“When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off-limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment.” (#175)