Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?
Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.
And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.
But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.
I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…
“NO! I HATE this part of the bread! I won’t eat it!”
My daughter had just realized that her peanut butter and honey toast was made with an “all-crust” heel piece. To a five-year-old who has never known true crisis, this realization is nothing short of devastating—on par with candy-less valentines and cake batter-scented (but NOT flavored) ChapStick.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the parenting struggle that, moments ago, I had decided was indeed worth my time and energy.
As soon as I’d opened our bread bag and discovered only end pieces, I’d known that making toast with it might awaken the melodramatic beast dwelling within my kindergartener. All parents are familiar with the rapid cost-benefit analysis of “choosing our battles” in daily life. The fact that there were four, as opposed to two, end pieces in this bread bag indicated that I had forfeited this particular battle with our last loaf of bread.
But this time I felt prepared to hold my ground: my daughter would eat this food or no food.
Having just read a parenting article about instilling empathy and pro-social behavior in children, I decided to make an effort to turn this little clash of wills into “a teachable moment” (mom-talk for trying to channel one’s maternal frustration into wisdom rather than a large glass of wine).
As my daughter geared up for another outraged protest, I looked her in the eye and said, “Honey, I love you so much. And one of the ways I try to show you I love you is by making your favorite snacks for you, like peanut butter and honey toast. How do you think it makes me feel when you start crying and yelling just because it isn’t exactly what you want?”
She furrowed her brow and pouted, mumbling something unintelligible. Then she got up and walked away from the table.
I sighed, disappointed.
“You can walk away, but you need to know that I’m not going to make you anything else until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate.”
She grabbed something from her art corner and disappeared behind the couch.
“Did you hear me? I said I’m not making you anything else until you’ve eaten your peanut butter and honey toast.”
“Hold ON,” she said impatiently. I rolled my eyes at her (because apparently, trying to create a teachable moment had maxed out my maturity quotient for the day).
And then she brought me the “art” she had abandoned the table to create: an addition to the paper plate valentine she’d made in church earlier in the week. Around the edge, she had penciled in the words I love you because you feed me.
And, for the millionth time since becoming a mom, I realized how much I have to learn from my daughter.
How often do I spurn the blessings God has set in front of me, simply because they look a little crustier than I was expecting? How often do I pick apart that which nourishes me, only to find myself feeling empty? How often do I take for granted (or refuse to take at all) the bread of life that God pours out for me?
Perhaps, most convicting: How often do I recognize the error of my ways and humble myself, turning to God with such a simple yet profound prayer?
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her articles for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. Ironically, the daughter mentioned in this article is not her picky eater.
Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“
~ Loretta Ross-Gotta
Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!
However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.
After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”
I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”
Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.
I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” (see lessons #1, #2, #3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.
More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.
My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.
My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.
But they have no interest in doing so.
They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.
Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith? But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.
The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.
The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.
When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.” But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.
It has certainly changed me.
For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.
I can’t wait for the days of my future fame – when some high-strung reporter asks me “how did you do it? How did you know?” Because at this point in my life, I plan on being at least 60, not caring much for social graces anymore, and I will totally respond in some graceless method laced with mild profanity: “Pfft. I’ve no idea.”
I have dreams of grandeur still, despite my chosen professional track. And though my adult self completely realizes great money and fame will never be in my cards (and really, that’s okay), it seems my inner child still expects a ridiculous amount of awe.
Yet, it’s hard to feel worthy of praise when the “success” of work is completely not because of you. In fact, it’s even better when you’re clueless, in a way. I’m not advocating that every professional dumps their hard-earned knowledge or skills. I just happen to be in the very unique position of quasi-counseling.
I don’t medically counsel people; that would be dangerous for both concerned. My style is more to provide a simple, subtle, optional direction for life. No pressure or anything; just someone’s happiness at stake. And routinely, my answer to people who ask how I do what I do is a blank stare with a feeble “I’ve no idea.” Which terrifies them, I think, and a little me, too.
And then add to that mix your own poor, personal decisions blowing up in your face. Well, it just doesn’t add a whole lot of confidence, you know? “Here, let me guide you in major life choices as my own life currently disintegrates behind me because clearly… I know what I’m doing.”
(And then God’s like, “Get your ego out of this, I will take care of it!”)
And suddenly I realize that it’s not about me. In reality, people kind of like it when you screw up but yet retain some semblance of sanity and pull it back together. They need to know that you don’t know what’s best so they can figure it out on their own. And honestly, if I knew all the answers, if I knew how it was done, if I knew the master plan and what you were destined to be, well, that would just ruin God’s surprise, wouldn’t it?
Emily Dawson, a vocation director for the FSPA and a friend of Sister Julia, writes from La Crosse, Wis., where she and Sister Julia sometimes visit coffee establishments and movie theaters together. Enjoy more of her cheeky style: she writes over at http://mappingthemystery.wordpress.com.
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
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
Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out, singing out
(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.”
We have entered the holy time of the O Antiphons. Like a mysterious extra holiday something is special and different today. Expectation is heightened. The glory is near.
For you, O lord, my soul in stillness waits.
My soul may be still, but the world is not. The chaos only seems to grow. A parishioner shared this morning that it is hard to enter the joy of Christmas with so much sorrow and tragedy in the world.
I am holding an image in my heart that speaks to me of persistent hope in this darkness—freshly washed hair neatly combed and a crisp clean dress.
I returned yesterday from 10 days in a rural province in Bolivia. With several of my FSPA sisters I went to present a retreat on Franciscan love and humility to 24 Bolivian and Austrian sisters. My heart was stretched and the world became wider as I entered into their rhythm of life in the Bolivian jungle. Every night we gathered in the church for mass. Twenty-two altar servers assisted the priest in perfect precision. Teenagers played the violin and guitar and drums with great joy. And everywhere there were children. This is the Bolivian daily mass where children come with consistency to practice their faith.
Every child was prepared for church. Every head of hair was freshly cleaned and smoothly combed. Every face scrubbed and every shirt clean and pressed. I noticed it even more because it was 95 degrees out, hot and sticky, and I felt like a mess. Sr. Janeira pointed out to me that many of the children have no running water in their homes and no washing machine except for the river. The chaos of daily life in a remote village in the jungle could not stop them from preparing to be in the presence of Jesus.
This is the indomitable Advent spirit. Jesus is the good news and we are getting ready!
This past week I journeyed with a group of women discerning a call to religious life. We traveled to New Orleans for a week of service at a ministry called The Rebuild Center, a collaborate effort by the Presentation Sisters, Jesuits and Vincentians. No, our ministry was not carpentry or plumbing, but rather helping rebuild lives by serving some of the most neglected on the streets of New Orleans—the homeless.
Several in our group were nurses and some were trained in healing touch. These women set up a massage and foot washing area for The RebuildCenter’s guests. Those of us in the group, like me, not trained in the medical field were given a crash course on healing touch and were invited to partake.
Honestly I was feeling uncomfortable with this invitation. Massaging another person is rather intimate and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of intimacy with a homeless person. And just the thought of touching another’s dirty feet made me feel nauseated. I avoided the invitation by sticking in the kitchen to help prepare the meals. However, every day I heard this nagging voice inside me say, “You should try it, look at the other women who are courageous enough to try it.” I would go peek in on the stations, but fear and the waves of nausea stopped me. I told the inner voice, “I can’t do it.”
Being in the Lenten season, the symbolic nature of the foot washing was not lost on me, and I was plagued with guilt of not being able to muster enough courage to serve these vulnerable men and women in this way. I felt like the rich young men of scripture whom Jesus told to sell their possessions and follow him. I walked away sad, feeling as though I was failing Jesus.
I wanted the courage to lovingly be able to enter into the foot washing ministry. I kept praying during the week that I would feel called and would have the courage to respond yes. On our final day in New Orleans Molly, one of my companions, asked if I was ready. Surprisingly, I said “Yes I think I can do it.” I suggested I watch her technique with one guest first and then jump in (I was really stalling for time). My face was hot and flush when I said this and she suggested I sit down and breathe deep. I watched Molly pray over her guest’s feet then gently and tenderly wash, massage and slip on new socks. Molly and the guest engaged in personal conversation all the while the man was getting his feet massaged, at one point he stopped in mid conversation, lost his train of thought and was swept away by the loving touch of Molly. I was witnessing a sacramental encounter.
After watching Molly I had enough courage to serve the next guest on the list who wanted a foot washing. I followed Molly’s example and with the grace of God was able to enter as deeply into the experience as Molly.
I was humbled and blessed in this simple act of love. I understand the profound message of Jesus in the scriptures as he washed the disciples’ feet, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:14-17) In the voice of the Spirit that came through Molly, and in the reciprocated love and trust of the homeless of the Rebuild Center, I know I am blessed.