French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.

 

 

As the insects, like the swans: Living the vow of obedience with a free spirit

I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.

I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.

Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…

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

Being a beautiful mess

By Guest Blogger: Sarah Hennessey FSPA

 

Usually when people find out I’m a Catholic sister there follows some basic assumptions. Some people wonder where I’ve put my “black get-up” or habit, my wooden ruler and my stern look. More stereotypes than assumptions, I’m still surprised how often these come up. Behind these images are the ideas that I must be a teacher, I probably pray all day and I most certainly could lead the rosary at a drop of a hat. Actually, I work in a parish, my day integrates prayer, ministry and social time and, as a convert, the first time I was asked to lead the rosary I immediately Googled “how to pray the rosary.”

Catholic sisters do not (and maybe never have) fit the narrow boxes that popular culture wants to put us in. I’m sure this is true for most people and whatever stereotype clings to them. Individuals are always gloriously unique and rarely fit neatly into categories. One assumption about Catholic sisters remains most insistent: that in some way I live a holier than average life and enjoy a special intimacy with God.

The recently published, lengthy interview that Pope Francis gave intrigued me in many ways, no more strongly than in his first few sentences. They appear in the Sept. 30 issue of America magazine and the article “A Big Heart Open to God” by author Antonio Spadaro, S.J. He describes the beginning of his interview: “I ask Pope Francis point-blank: ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’”

It’s not false humility or a way to avoid answering the question. I am a sinner. That’s how I know myself most intimately and raw, honest and real. That’s how God knows me and loves me still. God loves me in my most broken places and that is true holiness.

Sarah Hart, a Catholic singer-songwriter from Nashville, performed a concert at our church this weekend. It wasn’t a distant, stiff performance; instead, she shared her life and faith so honestly she made us stretch beyond our comfort zones. We couldn’t sit back and observe. We were changed.

Better Than a Hallelujah, one of the songs she wrote, (recorded by Amy Grant and nominated for a GRAMMY award), shows this truth of God meeting us in our brokenness. As Sarah sang, “Beautiful, the mess we are.”

God loves a lulluby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

God loves the drunkard’s cry
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes

Refrain
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

The woman holding on for life
The dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes

The tears of shame for what’s been done
The silence when the words won’t come
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes

Refrain

Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out, singing out

Refrain

(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)
Better than a Hallelujah
(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)

I know I find God when I am at my worst. Sarah Hart’s song reminds me that God doesn’t view me through my own lens of fear and shame. God knows I am a sinner. And God’s mercy still reigns. “Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.”

turning laments into love

It’s a lamenting sort of day.

I’m a modern Franciscan sister and live in a way that keeps me pretty tapped into the problems of the world. This morning was not unlike other mornings. I woke up, made coffee, said some prayers and then checked the weather on my laptop.

When I opened my laptop this morning, though, my email inbox appeared and it was jammed with news.  I learned that  Troy Davis had been executed over night. I had an email from one of my Catholic Worker friends about a shooting in Kansas City. Then, I had the usual emails asking for my assistance with campaigns for environmental, agricultural, immigration and economic justice from a variety of activist groups.

As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry.  Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond.  The challenge is to respond with love.

On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament.  I begged God for mercy.  I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed.  As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.

Soon after, I am with my students.  I decide to be real with them. “I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets,” I tell them. “I am trying not to take my anger out on you.  Let’s try to have mercy on one another and be open to God’s goodness.”  They nod in agreement.

In my classroom, we grapple with the theology of love. I am taught by my students through their encouragement and kindness.

I try to teach them something too.  I play this little video for them and we marvel at how great the world would be if humanity really lived out the basics of our faith, if we really lived with love:

Help us God! Amen!