I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
The 2015 movie Spotlight shows the painful and vital role of the outsider in exposing the systemic sex abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout Boston, and the U.S. Key outsiders, including the Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, the Armenian attorney representing survivors of abuse, and, most importantly, the survivors themselves, unlocked this horrific cover-up.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is when abuse survivor Phil Savianotells his story of abuse to the Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe. One of the reporters notes that he seems eccentric, too passionate and perhaps unstable.
Of course he was. He was abused, traumatized by a priest. He understands the church in a way an insider, who benefits from the system, never will.
The implication in Spotlight, is that Phil may be an unreliable source because his demeanor is not that of a slick communications professional or soft-spoken pastor. And more importantly, his story went against the dominant narrative of the church in Boston. It is just so easy to dismiss someone who has no power, who goes against the grain of an institution from which so many not only personally benefit, but identify with on a core level.
This week, Pope Francis will convene a 4-day summit with bishops from throughout the world on the sex abuse crisis that continues to traumatize Catholics.
On matters of official church teaching, the all-male hierarchy has the final say. This suggests a power imbalance. And as with all power imbalances, the question of whose voice is legitimized in dialogue should be raised. Who do we believe, in the church and in society? Whose voices matter? And why?
Throughout church history, it is often an outsider whose voice is most genuine and prophetic, and who sparks change. This is because outsiders often hold little to no power, and can truly understand corrupt and unequal structures. Outsiders, due to their vantage point, are a gift, and should be embraced by all who want a more just church and world.
I recently wrote a piece about Roy Bourgeois in the Patheo’s blog Sick Pilgrim, which I hope creates dialogue about the roles of outsiders and women in the church. Roy was a founder of SOA Watch, an incredible movement for demilitarization and anti-imperialism, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was widely supported by many Catholics. Then, after 40 years of practicing as a priest, Roy was excommunicated from the church because he refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.
Remarkably, Roy became an outsider due to following his conscience before he was excommunicated, but, as I write in this article, his understanding of the church became much clearer after being emphatically pushed out.
Roy was silenced. His voice was not welcome because it threatened the power of the all-male clergy, challenged the dominant narrative, and suggested that women could help heal the church. And for many of his previous supporters, this was enough to ignore him. The Vatican legitimized his ostracism, and if you personally benefit from the institutional church, then it removed the burden of having to bother with women’s inequality anymore.
I think it is nearly impossible for most people to understand the full picture of an institution from which they benefit, whether it is their job, their social life or their vows. This is why outsiders are a vital asset to all groups and societies. History always shows us that it is outsiders who bravely step into the public sphere, shine light on the truth and guide our way forward.
As the discussion of systemic abuse continues this week at the Vatican, let’s pray for outsiders, for whom we are all indebted. It is through their courageous lives and the grace of God that institutional culture changes. Let’s pray for their strength to turn pain and betrayal into action. For it is only through action that they, too, can be free.
Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.
As I observe the debate and consider how our government is failing to serve the common good right now, I have noticed I am not compelled pick a side; to make a public statement condemning anyone.
Why am I reluctant to stand up for peace and justice? Am I afraid of something, like offending a partner in ministry or someone I care about? Am I undecided about what’s right and wrong? Am I refusing to stand with the oppressed and marginalized?
I have been praying with these questions because I want to be a courageous disciple; I want share Christ’s light and love. And, I think that’s why the answer — that my opinions or outcry will not contribute any peace or unity — has come to me in prayer. It will only add to the din. The last thing our society needs right now is more din and debate. It is time for us to listen to another, to dialogue, to discover our common ground and work toward rebuilding a society full of peace and justice. The kingdom of God that Jesus established, the building of which is our Christian mission.
Certainly it’s valuable for me to evaluate my hidden prejudices — to attend to the ways that judgement can influence how I understand or react to situations. We all need to do this; it’s part of growing in health and holiness.
Even more importantly, though, is the call to increase the compassion and mercy offered to others, no matter who they are. Teenagers, Native Americans, republicans, democrats, African Americans or people who look and think like us — everyone deserves compassion and mercy.
I’ve learned how to get in touch with my own darkness, with my own ability to get involved in complex social sins. I do this by trying to see myself in others — even those who are clearly different than me. In other words, I try to imagine the story of how my life might have led me to behaving badly. I could have ended up a white supremacist if I would have felt desperate and allowed myself to become convinced by the propaganda I was exposed to as a youth growing up in rural America. I could have become involved in crime; in drugs and other addictions. I could have perpetuated violence and oppression upon others. I could have flaunted my privileges in ugly ways. I can imagine the narratives, the ways my life could have gotten me into trouble. I am no better than anyone else. We are all capable of evil.
Even though my life has gone in different directions (fortunately!), I still carry the potential to give into the temptations, to succumb to the darkness. Most of us do. And freedom is found in allowing ourselves see the truth of who we are; the truth of how desperately we need God’s grace, mercy and guidance. Only with God’s help can we grow in holiness and be peacemakers. This is the light we are called to offer.
When it comes to the complexity of sin and the din of debate, I believe the only way forward into God’s reign is to increase compassion and decrease judgement. Sharing this light will increase unity and peace.
Let us set down the stones and stop condemning one another.
Early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them.“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” –John 8:2-11
Let us try, by the grace of God, to go and sin no more.
In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.
I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.
My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”
In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.
I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.
Image courtesy Pixabay
I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”
The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.
I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. 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 language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
What we are now; what we will be. What has not yet been revealed; what we already know.
The First Letter of John speaks to our present identity and eternal destiny.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
The fulfillment of God’s promises, the reign of God, is “not yet” and “already present.”
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mk 1:15) Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and announced the prophesy of Isaiah “to bring glad tidings to the poor … to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord,” and he said, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:18-21)
Throughout his ministry Jesus fulfilled this promise through his teaching and healing and liberation from every form of oppression. Even in his death, God raised him, showing the power of God even over death itself.
Now the disciples, having received the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, continue this ministry of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter stands trial for invoking the name of Jesus to heal a man who could not walk (Acts 4:9), and later Peter heals Aeneas, who was paralyzed, and he raises Tabitha from the dead, (Acts 9:32-42)
It seems that what John writes about – “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” – is already present in these disciples. They encountered the Risen Lord, it transformed them, and now they are like him. They too are fulfilling the vision of Isaiah to heal and liberate.
So what about us? Have we too received the power of the Spirit and continue these ministries of healing and even raising from the dead? Is “being like him” only a future promise or also a present reality?
What have you seen and heard and experienced that indicates the fulfillment of God’s reign of justice and peace? Maybe, at times, it is not as obvious as the healings we hear about in Acts. But perhaps the healing and raising that we do experience is no less real or significant.
I think of friends and family who have nearly died or even had near-death experiences and lived to tell the story; of people who survived cancer, and of people who did not but whose presence continues to be felt; of people whose lives have been healed and saved through Alcoholics Anonymous, or social service agencies; of experiences where, even for a moment, loneliness or despair is lifted. I think of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which for me and many others is a place of powerful encounter with the mercy of God, a God who forgives and gives new life.
Yes, it is true that we await the day of fulfillment, the “new heaven and a new earth,” when God will “make all things new” and “wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” (Rev 21:1-5) But we also experience signs of this fulfillment today, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ.
“We are God’s children now.”
Note from the editor:This blog post is a version of a homily that Father Luke Hansen, SJ, preached April 22, 2018 (4th Sunday of Easter, Year B) in Rome.
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)
The courage and resilience of survivors of sexual assault choosing to share their stories gives me hope.
The wave of very public accounts of sexual assault and misconduct sweeping the United States, for many, has made what once seemed safe and certain seem suddenly dangerous and frightening.
For those recently opening their eyes to the harrowing realities of male privilege and power, the stories of sexual assault survivors may feel like a threat. Many may feel tempted to distrust what is being revealed about our society and opt for outright denial or compulsively blame victims for the violence they endured.
Many more may be overwhelmed by doubt and confusion, unsure of who to trust as powerful people and institutions expose their failure to protect us.
There are also many of us who have been treading in the dangerous and frightening uncertainty of living as survivors of sexual assault for some time.
But now, even if you never have before, is the time to listen to survivors.
The Gospel is fundamentally about listening to the needs of the most marginalized and the personal (and societal) transformation necessary for us to stand with those on the margins, demanding justice from the powers that be.
The challenge is learning to apply that call to our daily lives today.
When we exist within a patriarchal society and an even more patriarchal Church, it is tempting to position Jesus as the patriarchal center in our spiritual lives.
Too often we lose sight of the ways Jesus practiced dissent and favored decentralization; the ways he spoke truth to men in positions of power and listened to and supported women who were experiencing marginalization.
Thankfully, the survivors of sexual assault who are choosing to break the silence are modeling that dissent and decentralization for us today, so that we too can learn from their example and practice breaking the silence in our own lives.
As Heather McGhee, president of Demos, so powerfully explains, “This is a moment of reckoning. It is a moment of collective power for women who have felt that they individually could not speak up because men hold so many of the cards in workplaces, in industries. They hold so much of the political power in this country and the economic power. But women are discovering that there is strength in numbers and that they may just be believed. That’s a wonderful thing.” (“DemocracyNow!”)
It is indeed.
Just a few months ago, another friend of mine reached out to me to share her recent experience of sexual assault. Her experience not only traumatized her, but her whole family. And though I was filled with grief and rage as I listened to her story, I knew there were few options available for her to pursue justice. Disproportionately, legal action from the justice system and services such as therapy are much harder to access for women of color who have been sexually assaulted.
That was not the first time a friend of mine has been sexually assaulted without justice or professional support and, tragically, I doubt it will be the last.
As I reflected on the impotence I felt for my inability to offer anything more than accompaniment to this friend, I started thinking about all of the women I know (and don’t know) who have been sexually assaulted and the experiences of trauma that interconnect us.
And I started to paint.
“My Rage, My Voice” is the watercolor piece which I created while reflecting on the experiences of sexual assault that connect women from all different backgrounds and identities. The piece is about the grief and rage that connect us and the empowering experience of raising our voices to make our truth and our stories known.
Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, uses the phrase “empowerment through empathy” to describe the process of survivors sharing their stories with one another. And since hearing that term I have wondered to myself, is there a more succinct and accurate way of describing Gospel living than “empowerment through empathy”?
It is natural to feel uncertainty and fear in response to the harsh realities of injustice, especially when opening our eyes to those realities for the first time. But the Gospel calls us to choose empathy even when afraid and full of doubt, a call much easier preached than practiced.
Fortunately, the courage and resilience of those participating in #MeToo, #ChurchToo and other similar efforts to connect and amplify experiences of survivors of sexual assault are modeling for us how to speak truth to power.
By learning from their example, we too can learn how to transform silence and complicity into accountability and justice. That gives me hope.
Annemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.
“Why is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man?” asked a seventh grader.
His question wasn’t completely out of the blue. He, along with dozens of us spending the week at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in northern Montana, had recently learned a new way to proclaim God’s glory: “Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man, KSHHHH*, Spider-Man!” *Denotes both the sound and pose of web-slinging.
The question about Spider-Man came up while I was sitting on a panel for a “Pastors Pondering” session — a small-group gathering in which youth can confidentially write their most burning queries about faith and (hopefully) receive an answer from a pastor. (Though I am neither Lutheran nor a pastor, the camp had graciously invited me to participate anyway.)
Much to my surprise and delight, the seventh grader’s rather cheeky query inspired one of the most profound conversations about Christian theology that I’ve ever been a part of.
So why, exactly, is Jesus cooler than Spider-Man? Here’s what we came up with:
Jesus is there for us all the time, not just during an emergency
Spider-Man swoops into people’s lives to stop the villains when a situation reaches a crisis point; then he swoops right back out again, leaving those he rescued staring off into the distance where he disappeared. But Jesus never leaves us. Our lives don’t have to be threatened for him to care about us, and — though we may experience moments of awe and marvel at his greatness — we never have to stare off into the distance wondering when or if we’ll ever see him again.
Jesus lives in community, while Spider-Man is a loner
Peter Parker must lead a dual-life, hiding his most authentic identity from those to whom he is closest. But the Jesus of the Gospels is surrounded by people who know who he is and what he does … and who truly love him. Jesus does not build credible alibis; he builds deep and mutually-loving relationships. He inspires his community, teaches them, and empowers them to continue his work. I’d much rather be friends with that guy.
Jesus doesn’t need to use violence to defeat the bad guys
The death and destruction Spider-Man leaves in his wake sometimes cause people to wonder if having a neighborhood superhero is even worth it. But Jesus doesn’t have to maim, kill, or destroy to win. Whether he is confounding the Pharisees to rescue a woman about to be stoned to death (John 8:1-11) or mysteriously passing through an angry crowd intent on killing him (Luke 4:28-30), Jesus manages to undermine the evil intentions of villains without ever physically hurting them. And although Jesus’ famous instruction to “turn the other cheek” is sometimes mistaken for passive surrender, it is actually one of many acutely subversive acts of resistance to injustice that he demonstrates in his life. (For more about Jesus’ nonviolent subversion, I highly recommend “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way” by Walter Wink.)
But the point is: unlike Spider-Man, Jesus fights — and wins! — the good fight without ever harming his enemies or creating collateral damage. To a peace studies major like me, there’s just nothing cooler than that.
Jesus is a savior, not a superhero
Spider-Man always wins the day. He uses his super-human abilities to vanquish villains and receives public adulation in return. He defeats the bad guys and re-establishes proper order. Jesus, on the other hand, loses … badly. He ends up disdained and condemned by his own people, abandoned and betrayed by his best friends. He begs God to spare him, but still succumbs to an agonizing, unglamorous death. Yet somehow, in doing so, he defeats death itself and upends the proper order of things forever. Jesus’ story is not heroic … but it is salvific.
Jesus loves the bad guys just as much as the good guys
I don’t know about you, but I often wonder whether I would be the hero or the villain in many scenes in my life story. My autobiography is tainted by moments of cowardice, hubris, and even outright maliciousness. In short, I’m a sinner. Given the right circumstances, I have no doubt that I would find myself on the wrong side of Spider-Man’s relentless quest for justice. But Jesus’ quest for justice is rooted in radical grace, so that even the rich man who cannot part with his possessions is loved (Mark 10:17-22); and even the fraudulent tax-collector is invited to dinner (Luke 19:1-10); and even the soldiers who nail Jesus to the cross are forgiven (Luke 23:33-34). It may not be a Hollywood ending, but it’s beyond Good News for me.
Basically, it boils down to this: Jesus is cooler than Spider-Man because Jesus is God, and he chose to die for us — all of us — anyway. Spider-Man just can’t come close to that.
. . . Nonetheless, at the end of our Pastors Pondering, we did have to admit one thing: Spider-Man has much cooler clothes than Jesus.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her Lutheran pastor husband and their two daughters. She is grateful to Pastor Dan, Pastor Tanner, and her husband for being part of the amazing Pastors Pondering that inspired this post. She also apologizes to any die-hard Spider-Man fans for any character errors; she admits that she actually knows very little about Spider-Man.
Wendell Berry speaks of the Kingdom of God like an economy in a way that totally burns in my soul and speaks to our world situation today. He describes four major principles of the Kingdom of God:
Everything is included. Whether we want to be in it or not, all of creation is a part of the Kingdom of God.
Everything is connected to everything else. The Kingdom of God is orderly. It makes sense. If you change one thing it will always affect everything.
People, with our human limitations, cannot fully comprehend the Kingdom of God. We cannot know all of the creatures in it and we will never know the whole order and pattern it contains.
And then there is the last principle which really complicates things:
Though we can never fully describe the order of the Kingdom of God, there are major penalties for us if we violate that order. Even though we don’t know how things are connected there are limits, and when we go over those limits we always know it.
This makes sense to me in about a million ways. God’s life and love are continually present amidst the messiness of the world today. God’s creation has an order. It makes sense. And we are inextricably connected with God and all that is. But God is also unfathomable mystery. We cannot fit God into a box! We cannot understand the amazing interconnectedness of the cosmos, our relationships and our own inner lives.
But this is where it gets tricky. When we mess up we know it, but we don’t always know how our untidiness came to be. There is an invisible line we cross, sometimes every day, which lets us know that we are not in harmony with God and the rest of the world. For me, this happens when I fall into desolation and I struggle to get out of bed. Or, when I thought we were best friends and then we are not. The hourly news feed is a constant witness to the violation of the order of peace and justice in the world. And then there is our destabilized climate and its increasing chaos—a global wake up call to the violation of the order of the cosmos.
So how is the Kingdom of God like topsoil? In the same article, Wendell Berry describes how the Kingdom of God, which he also calls the Great Economy, is like topsoil. The dirt in which things grow is amazing. It turns death into life. In topsoil, everything is connected to everything else and this tremendous, life-producing balance is maintained … but we are really not quite sure how this happens. We cannot make topsoil. And we cannot make a substitute for it or replicate the complicated, intertwined processes that make it work.
But then, somehow through misuse, we begin to “lose” topsoil. We cross over some invisible line and the miracle of interconnected life stops working. Topsoil is defined as good quality, life-giving dirt and is only preserved by the careful care of farmers. When we violate the order—when we cross that line—we lose the quality of topsoil and it’s difficult to get it back.
The concrete example of topsoil helps me see my own life and interconnectedness to God more clearly. I am a miracle of life. All around me, life is both infinitely precious and a part of me. I am the child in Manchester, England who lost her life in mindless terrorism. I am the Syrian family bombed by coalition forces. I am the forests lost to mindless industrialism and I am the last Giant Ibis. I am the stars, the wind and the precious dirt that grows life. We are all connected. That is what it means to be the Body of Christ. You are the eye, and I am the foot and love binding us forever together. We are the forces of hope. We are the destruction that seems impossible to stop.
Part of what gives me hope is that things are getting better. Contrary to popular opinion today there are fewer wars, less violence and a bigger reduction in crime rates than just a few years ago.
Every death is a tragedy that should be mourned but when we step back from the emotions and look quantitatively at our world today, the good is winning. Hope is having the last word. Our interconnectedness is a gift and I truly believe that today more people are honoring it than ever before. This means that the Kingdom of God—God’s passionate desire for peace, justice and a world ordered by love—is becoming more visible and more possible every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ messy business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
I grew up as a Quaker in North Carolina. Now I am a Franciscan Sister in Wisconsin. You may think I have traded hush puppies for cheese curds and simple silence for complicated ritual. But actually I find God constantly holding me in love and light through them both. For me, there is more in common between these two paths than difference.
Especially now as we enter Advent, some particular Quaker sayings speak to me on how to prepare for the Christmas event of the coming of Christ.
Speak only if the words improve upon the silence
The Quaker (officially the Society of Friends) meeting I grew up in was unprogrammed, meaning that our worship service was an hour of silence. During that silence if you felt a “leading” you could speak. Maybe you would share an insight you had that week, a thought on a piece of Scripture, or even sing a song. In any case, there should be a deep prompting that the words you are going to say are worth breaking the holy silence we are all gathered in.
This seems to me a good habit for every day, but especially for Advent. Have I gotten lost already in the Christmas season or am I silently preparing in expectant waiting? Am I speaking from my heart, from a deeper sense of life-giving hope?
I’ll hold you in the Light
Currently, I have a prayer ministry as the coordinator of prayer intentions at our convent. When I was a Quaker, instead of “I’ll pray for you,” it was more common to hear my Quaker friends quickly say, “I’ll hold you in the Light.” They are referring to that Light of Christ that shines in everyone, the unifying communion of God’s love that is always ready to hold us. In the Light, we can see our gifts and our struggles more clearly. In the Light, we are not alone. In the Light, I am completely known as I am.
My heart is always touched deeply by this phrase of love and concern. The term of “holding” signifies to me more than a fleeting prayer. My friend will hold me, sustain me, and even join me in that Light that unites us all. This phrase reminds me that Advent is a time of communal retreat. It’s not something we do alone. The people of faith are preparing for the coming of Christ and together we are united.
That all flesh should keep silence
So, why sit in silence and wait? The foundation of Quakerism is that God communicates directly with each and every person. The Inner Light is within us all. The noise and clutter of the world get in the way. But silence clears a path. For me, personally, sometimes sitting in the silence was also like sitting in the dark. I never knew what was going to come next. I let go of my own expectations, even of my own words, and simply waited. As one Friend states:
The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own Life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; that the measure of light, life, or grace thus given increases by obedience; and that in order clearly to hear the Divine voice speaking within us we need to be still; to be alone with Him, in the secret place of His Presence; that all flesh should keep silence before Him. ~ Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909
I love this! God leaves both “a witness in the heart” as well as in our “surroundings.” As we enter Advent, am I both seeking within and without to see God’s love made visible? Advent as preparation is both about waiting and about seeking at the same time. We know the Light is coming, and the darkness helps us hunger for it more.
“And then, O then, there was one, even Christ Jesus who could speak to thy condition.”
This is the quintessential Quaker quote that started a movement. George Fox, who founded the Quakers, was an avid seeker. From his journal he records how he traveled around asking questions both of priests and Protestant pastors, but no one seemed to help him. But then, with great joy he heard a voice which told him that Christ Jesus “could speak to thy condition.” God communicated directly. From that all else flows—the silent meetings, simplicity, conviction not to pick up weapons; the sense that every person has dignity and all life is holy.
For me this is also the Advent lesson. As we wait for the Light, time collapses. The beautiful Scripture readings lead us through the three-fold coming of Christ. In the past, Christ was born and changed the world forever. In this very moment as I wait, Christ comes within my own heart. As we try to build the kingdom of justice and peace on earth we anticipate the future fullness of Christ’s coming. Christ indeed does speak to each of us where ever we are in our own condition. Taking the time to turn to God opens up the space for that direct, but often subtle experience of God.
I will admit that in the convent there is a fair amount of ritual around Advent—special readings, colors (violet), traditions, and songs. (If I hear “O Come Emmanuel” one more time!!!) I’ll never forget the first Sunday I realized that most of the sisters had dressed liturgically and were wearing violet to match the season! But ultimately, it is a time of waiting and expectation. Waiting in silence for the Light is the Quaker’s specialty. I find myself returning to silence and the Quaker wisdom that raised me to come to a deeper appreciation of the season. Truly, Christ has come, is with me now, and will come again. My heart spills over with hope, especially in these darker days. As Brian Wren says so simply, “When God is a child there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.”
Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.
I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.
Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.
Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”
As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:
Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.
I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.
Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:
No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?
There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.
Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.
I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.
I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)
I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.
No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.
Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.
Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)
With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.