We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.
We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.
We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…
This week at Sunday Mass I had a full-body prayer experience that transcended the ordinary.
I am Catholic. Full-body prayer is nothing unusual; it’s basic Catholic functioning. Stand, sing, sit, listen, sing, listen, speak, kneel, stand, shake hands, sing, walk, eat, drink, kneel, sit and stand. Through the rhythm of movements, our hands, feet, mouths and throats embody the mysteries of our Incarnational faith. Even as we sing, speak and breathe, the core of our bodies vibrate with words of love and hope.
This past Sunday, though, my body tuned into a communal woundedness. It was as if, in a way, I could feel in my bones an echo of the laceration that had been inflicted upon my brothers and sisters during the massacre in Orlando a week prior.
Certainly the mass shooting that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 was a complex atrocity. The narratives of our nation’s political battles are…
“I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”– John 10:10b
Merry Christmas! God is with us! And, this God who is with us- Baby Jesus- has given us the greatest gift of all: life! I believe that life abundant means that life is packed full with all bliss and burdens being human offers.
This December, my Advent and now-Christmas spirit kept switching channels. Due to the circumstances of my life and the events of our world, my inner-spaces and accompanying emotions flitted around like a spinning top. Really, I was on a journey through the valleys and peaks of life; there truly was a lot of the Jesus-named “life to the fullest” stuff.
December began with a week long awaiting for the birth of my new nephew. The first major life peak I dealt with was nervous anticipation unlike any I had ever felt before. The beautiful baby boy arrived on the 7th. Ecstatic joy, gratitude and awe came right with him. Plus, that same day, I also learned that a darling little girl who I love has leukemia. My heart broke with sadness.
More life: my work load snowballed, it was mid-quarter at the school where I work. Grades were due again. Enter heightened stress and exhaustion. After my grades were submitted and I sighed with relief, the layers of life became more meshed. The fun of Christmas was nearing but the harsh reality of suffering and tragedy still hung heavy.
Mid-month, I was like most humans: horrified and depressed about the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I wanted to scream and compel everyone to throw guns away and pour their money and energy toward compassion and mental health. I wanted to wrap my new nephew in my imagined fairytale safety cloak so that no gun could ever come within a mile of him. Never before had a felt so protective yet full of grief.
Instead, I had to do what many of us did: pray a lot, cry a little, and then push my fire-y feelings into my daily grind; the regular hard labor for Gospel peace and justice. Meanwhile, in my classroom and around the high school, everyone seemed to be getting antsy because Christmas was getting closer. I wondered if we were numb or ignoring suffering, or just eager to be joyful and celebrate the Nativity. Around the school we ate too much sugar, started singing carols and decorated as if our lives depended on it.
Where I live, the sisters and I sang and danced to carols on the radio, laughed and played games, baked cookies, made homemade candies, whipped up a feast, and exchanged gifts with much joy. The jolliness of the Christmas spirit had somehow had found its way into our hearts despite our consciousness of the expanse of human suffering.
I was merry too, as I drove off to be with my family for my new nephew’s baptism and Christmas celebrations. Fa-la-la-la-la-ling I went into Midwestern snows with a trunk packed with gifts and freshly made Christmas goodies. The radio didn’t stay stuck on the cheery Christmas carols, however.
With horror, I listened to how the national debate on gun violence had evolved one week from the Sandy Hook massacre. No longer were we talking about mental health, our violent culture and the need to change our gun laws. No instead, to my disgust, I was hearing the proposal for more guns, security and a suggestion that teachers should be armed. I was so angry I thought I would be sick. So then, onward to Christmas and baptismal feasts and joy did I go, slightly stained with the awfulness of cynicism and sarcasm because of the direction that the national gun debate turned.
The baptism and Christmas celebrations were beautiful and blessed, of course. I was honored to become a godmother again. I sang Christmas hymns to the new baby. I cherished every second I had with the living masterpiece that somehow, miraculously was made up many of the same genes that I am. My family stuffed our bodies with wonderful farm food and then burned off the calories by laughing so hard our sides hurt. And, of course, the prayerful liturgy was deep and peaceful. As we meditated on Christ’s coming to change and empower us, I felt God embrace the wideness of the fullness life. The Christmas happenings and the Holy Spirit provided a deep consolation.
Yesterday was also the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The fun and excitement of my Christmas Every Day experiment announcement, was squished between my prayer for all the thousands of children who die everyday from unjust causes throughout the world. I started to understand what I was getting myself into.
Living Christmas Every Day will mean that I will awkwardly flop around as I try to do what all of us are called to do. I shall celebrate that our God is with us through all things, especially in the suffering and pain.
Christmas Every Day means that as I will be more intentional about living the Christmas spirit than I am normally. And, that Christmas spirit that I’ll be living with isn’t all sweet and good. In fact, the story of Christ’s coming itself includes great violence and horror.
Christmas Every Day means that I shall carry all of what is true, good and hard about being human. My constant fun celebrating shall be colored with the wholeness of what life is and how God is with us, especially in the raw hurt.
Yes, Merry Christmas, may it be a real Christmas too, a celebration conscious that life to the fullest is packed with joy and pain together.
The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice. No barriers divide us, no division separates us. God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.
Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong. We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits. With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred. If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.
In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature. Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive. Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests. Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.
We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding. It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore? How can we believe and trust? How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?
Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through. In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.
I try to trust, despite the struggle. I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed. A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice. He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered. “No, it’s not!” I said.
Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain. Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK. I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.
Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends. The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.
I am not afraid of death. I do not fear death because somehow I am confident that I’ll get to know Jesus better at that point and I really look forward to that. But, I don’t want to die.
I am afraid of grief. Grief can damage faith. It can destroy joy and break people down. The fear I do have about my own death is what it might do to the people who love me. I’m afraid of people I love dying because I don’t know how I would live with the awful taste of grief in my own body, soul and mind. And, I doubt I can live without them.
In addition, when confusion is really thick, doubt can cloud out joy, hope and a sense of purpose. Questions can collide with trust. Why would God let this happen? How could a good God let us suffer? How is a Christian to respond? What are we supposed to say? How are we supposed to be?
I’m learning some answers because I keep living.
I have heard some of my students say that death is their greatest fear. Nearly every day I hear them pray for a safe return home from school and a safe return back tomorrow. I haven’t prodded to find out exactly what they fear about death- whether it’s what it would do to others (like me) or how it would cut their lives short, or something else completely. No matter the reason, their fears are well founded. Violence hurts and kills people in neighborhoods all over Chicago nearly every day.
This weekend our country is commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Certainly, the nation can do well from pausing to remember how suffering has changed us. It’s valuable to tell our stories and to hear the memories of others. While we listen, let’s build community and bless each other through loving presence.
Here’s the “How To” that I have learned: No matter the cause of death and tragedy, we must respond with love.
Lately, I’ve learned about love in a whole new sort of way. My own experience has convinced me and I’m learning it from how my students are. When tragedy, such as death, breaks us down and contaminates us with pain, the most healing thing that a person can offer is loving presence.
The walls of death can’t clog the power of a loving presence. Through grief, love beyond the material world is real to us. Even beyond death, those whom we love are with us. When we stay awake and listen deeply this Truth gazes back at us through the suffering.
This love bonds and blesses. It’s beautiful how it can’t really break. Thanks be to God for the mystery and wonder. Thanks be to God that love keeps building. Thanks be to God that we’re children of love and at death we don’t really part.
Brothers and sisters: None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. -Romans 14:7-9