I Walked into Suffering on the Road to Santiago

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”

The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.

For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.

The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that…  [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Pilgrims going into Santiago
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

One life together

As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.

I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.

On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.

Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.

For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).

“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”

I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.

Amy Nee and one of her children.

Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?

Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

sleeping-children-courtesy-Any-Nee
Amy’s children, sleeping soundly (photo courtesy of Amy Nee).

Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends.  Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.

One life …  one life … one life … one life.

Come, let us love one another.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy 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, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Peace shouldn’t be a privilege

It’s International Day of Peace! This day is also known as Peace One Day.

This is a day for us to unite as citizens of Earth, as children of God,  and act in ways that help create peace. It’s a day of cease fire and reaching out with humanitarian aide. It’s a day to pause, to pray, and to act for the greater good, for an increase of peace and justice.

During my morning prayer today I watched the sunrise over Trout Lake and warmed my throat with my sips of hot coffee. The sky glowing with pink and gold sparkled upon the rapid waves. Once again, another scene of peace and beauty washed me with awe, overwhelmed me with gratitude.

As I prayed in peace and savored all the beauty, I couldn’t shake the feeling like something was off. I couldn’t stop feeling like it is just completely unfair that I have never been a victim of violence or lived in a war zone. I have never hesitated to sit outside and pray. I’ve never had to hide in a bomb shelter or been afraid at a check point. I have never been starving or unable to find clean water to drink.

It felt unfair that my life is so good because I am aware that millions (billions?) of people throughout the world are not so fortunate. One of the greatest injustices of being human is that we have made peace into a privilege.

Of course this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, this is not the way God intended it. Peace shouldn’t be a privilege.

I challenge you to join me and millions throughout the world and do something to act for peace today. Help us work to help bring peace to Earth today, so that everyone everywhere can experience and enjoy it on a daily basis.

You could pause and pray on your own (and then share about it on social media, if you’d like) or participate in a prayer service that is already going on, like this one in La Crosse later today. Or, you could sign up to host a prayer service in solidarity with the SOAW Border Convergence the weekend of October 7-10 here. (This is a project that I have been working on for several months along with a great team of other Catholic sisters.) You could sign an important petition advocating for peace and justice, from one of your favorite social justice organizations. You could inform yourself and others about what really prevents peace and help contribute to solutions, helping the UN meet any of the Sustainable Development Goals, as are highlighted in this video:

It’s a bit cliche, but when it comes to peacemaking, it’s quite true: the opportunities are endless.

Thank you for praying and working for peace with us!

"Sunrise at Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Sunrise at Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The story in the world’s heart

 

IMG_0925.jpg
The Holy Family in a creche scene in Greccio, Italy, 2014. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.

We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…

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

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Love, Sister Julia

 

3 tunes for a good God-filled day

Good morning!

Let’s turn our eyes to God as we start this day!

Here’s a good song to get you pumped up for the blessing of another day:

Here’s a song to ponder the fact that you are miracle, that you are one of many imperfect people:

And, finally, we know that living the Gospel is messy. It requires authentic brokenness and dependence on God, for we are all works in progress:

May God bless you as your heart sings to God through the ups and downs of this day! Amen!

 

 

 

The frailty of my faith (or, How losing my daughter in the park gave me a glimpse of my own hypocrisy)

I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …

It’s so cliché, but so damn true.

This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.

My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.

… and she was gone.

 

Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com

I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.

But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.

I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.

I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.

I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.

I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?

My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.

This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.

And then we found her.

A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.

She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.

I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.

I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.”  The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.

By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.

Except I’m not.

Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.

In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?

The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?

If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?

I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.

But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?

I seriously doubt it.

And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.

When Jesus asked for food (or, how I realized Easter is an ordinary thing)

Sometimes the Easter story is just plain unbelievable to me.

Doubts invade my prayer and distract me from the whole point of the story— of the entire core of my faith. Questions multiply in my mind exponentially. Why did some people recognize Jesus while others didn’t? Why is the Easter story so different in each Gospel? How did it really happen? Did it even happen at all? What if the whole “resurrection thing” is just metaphor? What if Jesus didn’t really come back in his body, but people just explained it that way because they had trouble understanding what they were feeling after Jesus was killed?

Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?”

I guess I’m a lot like Jesus’ friends who had trouble believing their eyes, who remained cynical even when God himself spoke directly to them. Forget “you gotta see it to believe it” or “you had to be there,” sometimes we don’t even believe the goodness that is right in front of our faces.

“Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”

Maybe I have Easter questions because I am feeling desperate for a big, dramatic miracle. I want some happy headlines that restore all my faith that goodness is the strongest force. Terrorists repent and destroy all weapons. Cancer cure available for free to all in need. Malnourished children restored to perfect health. Billionaires give everything to the poor. Gun shops go out of business.  

Apparently I have high expectations and big dreams. Maybe the truth is that I wouldn’t even recognize a miracle if it happened right in front of my face. Perhaps I need someone to show me what’s real and how God’s masterpieces surround me.

And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.

Yes! God’s beauty is all around me, all the time, in the ordinary things. I don’t have to look too far to find something beautiful. I can easily experience wonder and awe for the goodness of God’s creation. My students are listening and working hard. Buds are opening and flowers are blooming. The food pantry is well stocked. The sun is shining and the sky is a beautiful blue. Life is good!

… they were … incredulous for joy and were amazed …

So much goodness is happening around me, but, how am I part of this? Jesus is God, so above me, so beyond me. I am small. I am nothing. I am just a person with very human needs and wants.

… he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish; 
he took it and ate it in front of them.

Photo credit: cookingforkeeps.com

And he is human too! He shows up, announces “Peace,” and then asks his friends for a snack! This is the Resurrected Jesus I can get behind, that I can believe in–the teacher who pauses in the profound, steps into the ordinary, and asks his pals for some food. Not only is he alive and human, but he’s a beggar too!

Now I know–or at least I am starting to get it: Easter is actually an ordinary thing.

Even though the first Easter Sunday changed everything, the Truth that must inform my daily living is the part of the story where Jesus models how to be fully human. Easter may not end all human suffering, but it should change how we are with each other. Easter is a human thing, a holy and profound moment that is just as basic as showing up uninvited and asking for a snack!

Amen! Alleluia!

Ashy Remembering

Black falls off my fingers.

A dark coat of Truth covers

me, my hands, all dirty. I am

Too messy for this: the sacred

Marking of penitents processing.

Skin rubs skin, black in between

Ash smeared upon holy, oily faces.

The stream keeps moving. I am

like a rock slowing the flow with

redirecting, grounding. I proclaim:

          “Remember

           you are dust and to dust

           you shall return.”

The steady flow of faces, the wisdom of the mantra

moves my solid heart.  I remember.

          I remember the softball coach

          and his sudden death last Spring-

          he is now nearly dust in his grave.

          I remember my former student killed

          on the street and the beauty of his grin.

          I remember my grandmother, and an

          absence, an aching for sixteen years.

          I remember the martyrs of this bold faith.

          I remember those marked by blood in death

          in Syria, the C.A.R., Ukraine, Venezuela, Iraq,

          Afghanistan. I remember that they’re me.

The stream keeps moving. I am

like a rock slowing the flow with

redirecting, grounding. I proclaim:

          “Remember

           you are dust and to dust

           you shall return.”

Black falls off my fingers.

A dark coat of Truth covers

me, my hands, all dirty. I am

Too messy for this.

          Repent.

“Remember You are Dust” by John Pobojewski From: http://pastorblog.cumcdebary.org/?p=3585

ugly body

orange over me

upon still solemn sidewalk

silent under black

My breathing quickens.

the truth is too tight:

innocent men are confined

tortured to death

human-inflected trauma

in the name of national security

The cells of my eyes water what my heart holds.

my love, Jesus, tortured by thorns, nails, cross

laments stab while questions weigh on a helpless body

centuries later the crowds still scream crucify

My bones grind and stiffness sets into sore feet and knees.

prayers are uttered into Mary’s ear, as she knows

secrets of torture techniques told

“feels like drowning two hundred times.”

“hanging by wrists for hours, no sleep.”

“humiliation.”

“dogs.”

“darkness.”

“orders.”

My body shudders with shame.

trying to yell NO the over-used too old sign bares challenge:

let it close, it needs to end.

sorrow looks through cloth pores

there, no dignity

here,  fashions rush by wasting fast food, texting into cellular phones

ignoring the pain of the ugly orange body

I don’t understand.

Yesterday,  June 23,  I vigiled with a few other members of Witness Against Torture  on a sidewalk at a busy intersection in Chicago.   I wore an orange jumpsuit and a black hood like the men who are imprisoned at Guantanamo.  (I am the second person from the left in the photo above.)  I stood as a reminder of what tax dollars still pay for.  While I prayed in solidarity for all who suffer because of torture, others answered questions.  And, at the same time, 15 protesters were arrested in Washington DC for disrupting the discussion on the defense bill in the House of Representatives. Today, the day after I had the intense experience of wearing that ugly outfit, Guantanamo is still open. I will never be the same because of what I felt inside that hood.  My prayer and work for justice has deepened.

May God bless all our bodies. Amen.

Holy Relating in the Facebook-Era

I watched The Social Network last night, mainly because I was curious.  Similarly,  I joined Facebook five years ago, shortly after it started and around the same time that I entered my community, because I was curious.  Curiosity is usually what causes me to conform, even if I have mixed feelings or I am not really sure how an action may fit with my Christian living.

The story of the creation of Facebook is very real:  it’s friendships, energy, ideas and passions spiraling around young, talented people in a legalistic, money-driven era.  The true story felt like a visual time-capsule to me, like something that historians and psychologists will be able to study in 50 years when they are trying to make sense of why humans relate as we will then.

The film reminded me that it’s true that organic, creative projects change the world and humanity forever.  This fact echoes my understanding of the Gospel- the call to build the Kingdom that gives me great joy.  In collaborative communities we create change and help people connect more deeply, and it’s really powerful and good.  Plus, the story got me thinking about how relationships can be twisted collisions of trust and distrust, hope, love, faith, confusion and betrayal.  Is that a tragedy?  I am not sure.  This reality seems to fit with the story of Jesus, too.

Nonetheless, I am disturbed.  I have found it fascinating- and frustrating- to participate in the evolution of human relating and communication during the past five years, since Facebook (and now Twitter, etc.) have become as common as eating. (At least for the 8 percent of us on earth who actually have internet connection, I suppose.)

Lately I have tried to be more conscientious about how much I use Facebook, mention Facebook in conversations and hear others talk about Facebook each day.  Naturally then, I was amused at mass this morning when the priest told a story about how he reconnected with an old friend through the internet and Facebook.

I suspect many of us have had similar experiences.  I imagine that a lot of us have found Facebook a helpful tool in fostering relationships and reconnecting with friends.   I have, and it is very exciting.   I appreciate being able to read headlines and see pictures of babies, weddings and ordinary life stuff of people I know with as much ease as reading a newspaper.  This is good, I think, because I believe that relationships are the meaning of life.  We grow in union through communication and communion,  through all of our relating to each other.  In addition, the technology permits a different type of Gospel witness, and this is good.

Nonetheless, I have questions and concerns.  I heard a story about a friend-of-a-friend who learned about the sudden death of her aunt through a Facebook post recently.  I know of other tragic- and joyous- momentous news that has been shared through family and friends exclusively through technology.   I doubt that this is good for our souls and spirits.  When things are deep and meaningful, it doesn’t seem healthy to relate with each other without the raw mess of human emotion, inflection and reflection.

Does it hurt us when we learn about big things in our close friends’ lives at the same time as their other 650 Facebook friends/acquaintances?     Why does it suddenly seem so hard to relate to each other in real, old-fashioned types of ways, like through visits, phone-calls and hand-written letters as we live and love?  Have we lost our human touch?

Certainly, our society has been drastically changed by Facebook technology.  Likewise, the way we relate and communicate has radically shifted.

Is this God’s will for us? Is this what Jesus intended when we were commissioned to build the kingdom?   How does our modern technological communication impact our souls, our freedom, our prayer and our ability to relate to each other as God designed us?

On this Feast of the Holy Trinity, we are blessed with renewed focus on God who is perfect relationship and who is Love and Truth.  In the Trinity we know a love so self-giving and constant that the union changes all creation.  We learn how to Love if we listen in prayer to how God the Parent, God Incarnate and the Holy Spirit relate together as three-in-one.

How did God design us to relate to each other? Since we’re made in God’s image, I believe it’s just like the Trinity.  Let’s love, give, share, care, hold, touch, heal, help, communicate, commune and just be together in the real, raw mess of relational love.

Let’s love each other, in the boundless, eternal non-technological, human ways.  The Bible tells us so:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.         –  2 Cor 13:11-13