Redefining faith on El Camino

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…

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

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

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

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery

About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.

During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.

Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?

With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.

I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…

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

"rowing on Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“rowing on Trout Lake” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Lessons learned from my students

A few weeks ago I saw my first “Back to School” flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.

This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no “back to school” for me.

To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not…

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

"Stones in Trout Lake" near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Stones in Trout Lake” near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

His church and mine: A love story

“So, you’re Catholic, but you’re married to a Lutheran pastor. How does that work?”

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question in my seven years of marriage. Depending upon the inquirer, I have a few canned answers that easily roll off the tongue, but the simplest and most genuine is this: “By the grace of God!”

illustration: Cap Pannell
Illustration by Cap Panelli Credit: http://magazine.nd.edu/news/67897

When I boarded a plane bound for Notre Dame 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the journey would…

[This is the beginning an article found in the Summer 2016 edition of Notre Dame Magazine by Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rouser, Nicole Steele Wooldridge. Continue reading HERE.]

 

 

 

About the Rabble Rouser

Nicole Steele WooldridgeNicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughters

Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago. Having majored in Theology and International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Nicole shares Sister Julia’s passion for Catholic Social Teaching. Though her goal is to travel the globe (five continents and 24 countries down … everywhere else in the world to go!), she is happily rooted in the Seattle, Washington area for now while she and her husband raise their two young daughters. Nicole’s columns for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting, particularly as it relates to the radical call of Gospel living. When she’s not working part time at a local college or chasing her girls around the house, Nicole enjoys reading spy novels, visiting microbreweries, and discussing black holes. She is extremely grateful to be a part of the Messy Jesus Business family!

The church is a home for peacemakers

In the midst of a war, I found my home in the Catholic church.

I was a college student, majoring in history. Studying history meant, among other things, studying war and the destruction and injustices that wars had repeatedly caused. The more I studied this side of history, the more passionate I became about social movements and peaceful alternatives. The truth of history convinced me that war, militarism and violence were all immoral.

At the same time, I was exploring the…

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

Peace sign
Photo credit: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/199476

Ugandan faith lesson #4: thank God for every “journey mercy”

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the fourth blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family”  by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (read lessons #1, #2 and #3). Tune in tomorrow to experience the final installment of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

My husband and I almost canceled our trip to Uganda two weeks before our scheduled departure.

Ethiopian airline, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

We had just found out the country’s presidential elections would be happening the day after we arrived (the date of which had not been determined when we bought our tickets the previous year). My own knowledge of the political situation in Uganda, combined with a few hasty Google searches, left me fearful that we might be entering a hornet’s nest of political protests and police showdowns—a risk which might have thrilled me 10 years ago, but which I could not stomach as the mother of two young children.

After reaching out to people I trust in Uganda (including, of course, my host family) and a great deal of prayer for discernment, my husband and I decided that canceling our trip would be bending to fears of unlikely “what-ifs” rather than reasonable concerns for our physical safety. Together, we resolved to do something which doesn’t come easily to those of us accustomed to feeling in control of our circumstances: to take a deep breath and trust in God’s protection.

The catch, of course, is that none of us is ever in control of our circumstances, and we are always in need of God’s protection. We just don’t have to confront that reality nearly as often in the United States as in other parts of the world.

In Uganda, death is never far.

It is a country which—just within my lifetime—was enmeshed in a brutal civil war, was hit early and hard by the AIDS epidemic, was the site of the world’s worst neglected humanitarian crisis, and which is still among the poorest nations in the world. Even Ugandans living in relative security, like my host family, are aware that merely driving from one city to another can be perilous given the frighteningly high incidence of traffic fatalities.

matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
matatu (Ugandan taxi), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My Ugandan family does not take their safety for granted.

Every evening during family prayer, they thank God for the “journey mercies” which have delivered them safely home. Their prayers of thanksgiving for these journey mercies are specific and elaborate, without being morose. For them, there is no fatalism or despondence in acknowledging that their lives are entirely in God’s hands … only profound trust and gratitude.

I do not wish for the dangers of life in Uganda; there is nothing quaint or charming about the fact that the life expectancy of a Ugandan is a full 25 years shorter than my own.

Ugandan baby, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

But none of us is getting out of this world alive. My husband and I know, on an intellectual level, that we are not guaranteed to come home tomorrow. We could easily be struck down by a car accident, or a madman, or a disease …  So why does it feel disempowering or pessimistic to admit it?

Why do we let the illusion that we are “in control” fool us into thinking we have anyone but God to thank for delivering us safely through the day?

For reflection: How can we who live a comfortable existence identify and express gratitude for the “journey mercies” of everyday life?

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 lacks the courage to drive a car in Uganda.

Saying yes to God

At times, discipleship feels a bit like this:

Big trucks and death beds tend to get our attention. We wake up and listen to the Truth when tragedies and power struggles shake us alert. God gives us grace and growth and then we learn. We really aren’t meant to be independent after all; we’re trying to be God when we cling to control and try to go through life on our own.

Today is World Food Day, a particular day when discipleship offers opportunities: we are called to advocate for those who are hungry, to be stewards of our blessings, and to fast and pray for the type of world that works according to God’s designs. (I suggest participating in some of the actions of Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam or Bread for the World.)

At times, we might rather just ignore disturbing facts — like every day about 30,000 children die throughout the world from preventable causes. Meanwhile, the United States throws away enough food to fill an entire stadium.

Food Waste

We’d rather not think about such things. That way we can keep enjoying our gourmet food guilt-free. Systemic change is tough stuff when the suffering feels too far away from us, or the facts are totally depressing.

But we’re disciples of Jesus, the greatest advocate for those who are hungry and poor. We try to follow Jesus’ ways, even if it means letting go of our comfort and entering into what’s ugly and disturbing.

When we pray “thy will be done” are we asking for God’s will to be done only in the ways we like and are comfortable with? Or, do we expect God’s will to be as we imagine it?

Being human means being in relationship. Relational living insists on our need to rely on others. In order to really trust one another and follow Jesus  we must let go and remain open to mystery. This isn’t easy when the mystery is really, really uncomfortable or unlike what we’re used to. Praying for openness can help, I’ve learned.

I keep wondering, though, if we make it harder or easier on ourselves when we pray to be open to changes. Is it inevitable that we’ll  carry our ugly stubbornness and assumptions around and then weigh down our walking with Jesus? Is there a certain amount of resistance and struggle that is appropriate, necessary and natural?  Do these dynamics make us human, and ultimately cause us to grow?

Maybe risk-taking and leaps of faith are God’s ways of getting us in shape for the real labor of following. Because, the act of saying yes to trusting God can open us to change.

God is clever.  Leaning into God’s trustworthiness gets us places. Somehow we end up submitting and give up our ideas and agendas when we must.

"sunset in New Mexico" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“sunset in New Mexico” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

This saying is trustworthy:

If we have died with him we shall also live with him;

if we persevere we shall also reign with him.

But if we deny him he will deny us.

If we are unfaithful he remains faithful,

for he cannot deny himself.

-2 Timothy 2: 11-13

crossing shadows

No matter where I am in the world- where I am in my life- I continue to be fascinated with how light and dark dance together.  As I journey with Jesus through transitions and changes, I continue to be in wonder and awe of how I experience Christ’s presence in the shadows, the cracks, the hidden, silent places.  As my faith deepens, it seems that God is not a God of only what is black and white and crystal clear; rather, God is fully alive in the places made of the energy of grey.

Here’s a collection of some of my photography from the times when I have been mesmerized with the glory of God in the silent spaces as I follow Jesus; the beauty of crossing shadows.

“hush” KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation Synagogue, Chicago, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh
“wild wonder” Wisconsin, USA; photography by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“in adoration” St. Rose Convent, La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA
“upon effigies” Effigy Mound National Monument, Marquette, Iowa, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“holy ground” Avila, Spain; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“ways to go” Chicago, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Christ of colors” Reading, Pennsylvania, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“blooms” Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“in the shallows” Sparrow Lake, Ontario, Canada; photography by Julia Walsh

Sometimes, when such silent shadows stun me I remember this song, by Jars of Clay called “Fade to Grey.”

a mucky way of peace

As I continue to try to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I continually confront the messy, cluttered commotion along the Way.  I feel like I keep switching from being stunned by the beauty and caught in my human confusion.

The words I pray every morning stir my questions:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.
He has raised up a horn for our salvation
within the house of David his servant,
even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to be mindful of his holy covenant
and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,
and to grant us that,
rescued from the hand of enemies,
without fear we might worship him
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high* will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1: 68-79

Good and simple and the Light on the path is mighty. The Light that shines on the path of peace glows into shadows.  There’s dusty despair floating around in the Light creating a strange beauty.  A calm collects and settles, yet the stains of sin feel like stones in shoes.  We talk about the beauty of God’s mysterious ways while a bad taste of discontentment lingers on our lips.  We remember that although we can revel in the goodness of God, we can’t forget the injustices and suffering that still are in need of great redemption.

Paths leading to trees

I’ve been on a blogging break for the past couple weeks as I finished up a semester of teaching, took a Christmas vacation and went on a silent retreat.  (Thanks to Sister Sarah and Steven for writing while I was away!)

The Christmas season is ending and I am renewed.  The blessings of the incarnation have re-rooted me in the core of who I am: a child of God.  As God’s child, I am on the path of peace.  A theme of my retreat was God’s Way of Love and I considered the power of the Prince of Peace being alive and home in the broken darkness of our messed up world.  Jesus’ way of blessing the brokenness of humanity permits us to have hope and trust.  God is enfleshed and alive in the fullness of humanity.  Back in my classroom I’m marveling with my students about how Jesus is a material man. He’s word, light, love, energy, feelings, image, sound, alive and fleshy. God is really awesome!

Still, my rejoicing feels mucky.   Many of my companions on the journey carry a lot of truth.  In the faces of many I see tears, hunger, fear and sorrow and I know that oppression is not over.   There’s more work to do.   My friends who are peacemakers remind me that we can’t sit down and give up.  Jesus loves us (yes he does!) and love is a powerful, world-changing force.

Love is messy, as written on a crumpled sheet of paper

We can’t slow in our work for peace and there’s an urgency in the good news. We keep creating the new ways of God- no matter how mucky they seem in coming. The muck can be depressing.  It’s unpleasant, but if we’re with Jesus it’s where we belong.

Nowadays, the horrors of state sanctioned torture and indefinite detention are especially disturbing me.  Guantanamo prison has been open for almost 10 years despite its human rights and international law violations.  Some of my activist friends are hard at work in Washington D.C. and here in Chicago with incredible fasting, protesting, educating and praying. Like they did last year (and Luke wrote about) they’re fasting and creatively, non-violently asking our government to end the injustices of torture and detention.  I join them as I am able: in solidarity as I fast too (from television), in action to increase awareness, in advocacy for justice and in prayer and contemplation.

I’m remembering how before Christmas we heard the news that all the troops were coming home from Iraq.  I was still in an advent waiting space in my spirit, but my mind told me I ought to rejoice and celebrate a victory for justice.  A shadowy waiting space and an enlightened celebration: I wasn’t able to unite the two.  Instead, I felt my joy fall flat.  I was opposed to the war before it began and my young activism was formative for me.  The ending of the occupation felt so long overdue that it felt more frustrating than favorable.  Peacemaking is mucky.

I am grateful that Jesus was born into the broken, confused places within our spirits and within our world.  As we suffer and struggle we find that we must remain open and empty to experience the fullness of God.  We must allow continual conversion.  After all, we can accept that on the path of peace there’s joy of the incarnation: we are forgiven, free and blessing the brokenness in the world.  The darkness cannot overcome the light, light shines through the darkness! Thanks be to God!

Road toward a light sky