The holy work of tending to life

“Everything is work. We either accept it or we fight against life.” This was the declaration of the Mother Superior and leader of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine Abbey of 36 nuns in Connecticut offering their lives in prayer and cooperative work with God and all creation. This community raises beef and dairy cattle, makes cheese, raises sheep and chickens, cultivates a garden and compost operation, and even dabbles in pottery, weaving, artistry, leather making, and blacksmithing. The life of this community is one sustained by God’s grace in prayer and work. And it is a lot of work. All work at Regina Laudis is ordered towards the common good, to the glory of God.

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“Psalm 27” by Janice Little (image courtesy Greg Little).

After visiting Regina Laudis in June, I returned to my own community with a renewed sense of the connection between work and life.

God breathes everything into existence. All life is sourced in and aimed towards God. In our life together – whether that’s a group of friends, a family, a church body, an intentional or religious community – we are invited to participate in God’s life and to nurture and sustain life. This takes work. Sometimes this work is boring. Sometimes this work is fun. Sometimes it carries a sense of importance, and other times it is underwhelmingly mundane. Sometimes this work is difficult.

Part of this work involves our own inward discoveries and confrontations with pain and fear. The work of interior exploration, noticing, confession, and truth-telling opens up a new terrain for possibilities of love and compassion in a community’s life. The more our common life matures, the greater our capacity to accompany one another in this inner work. Our life is filled with mess ups and forgiveness, discovering our compulsions and strengthening friendships in the journey of receiving God’s grace towards freedom.

Another significant part of this work involves our daily, practical, tiny offerings of doing the dishes, naming hidden gifts, cooking with care, listening to one another, teaching children, bearing one another’s faults with compassion and a smile, changing air conditioning filters and light bulbs, committing to being present, confessing and forgiving wrongs, and placing flowers in a vase on the table.

I wonder what might happen if we explore the mysterious connection between work and life?  What if we work inside of community life as the holy nurturing that makes room for the gift of life to bloom and grow?

Sundays at 4 p.m., all of us who live at Corner House gather to talk about our week’s upcoming schedule and to-do chores. Janice organizes the refrigerator and refreshes our memory of leftovers. Miss T thoroughly washes the dishes and cleans up our coffee corner. Tony changes the sheets in our Christ Room and sweeps all the floors. Lee selects just the right album to play on the record player to lighten and enliven the mood and then cleans the washer or tidies the porch. We work together. We work for one another and for the unknown guests that will present Jesus’ presence to us in the upcoming week.

This pattern of coming together on Sunday afternoons is a place of vitality for our home. We remind one another, through this shared work, of the life that is given to us by God in our common life. We tend to that life, nurture it, and make room for it to grow. We open channels for that life to flow freely and fully.

And Sundays aren’t the only time for this. Bonnie starts our house grocery list the moment the previous week’s grocery run ends. All week long, Bonnie adds to the list when she sees something running low. Tony’s garden-tending is slow, deliberate and filled with wonder. In the last couple weeks, he emerges from the garden everyday with nine cucumbers or seven okra or 15 sun-gold tomatoes. Janice uses her eye for beauty to rearrange art on the walls and systematize our shelves and closets. All of this work is concrete, small, untethered to money, and terribly ordinary. All of this work attends to the gift of life given us by God. All of this work swims in the loving, active presence of God.

We are learning to work to sustain the life given to us by a loving God. We are learning to resist the temptation to say “no” to this work for other tasks we deem more “relational” or ”spiritual,” for God is present in all the mundane acts of care that make room for life to flourish more and more. In prayer, we are reminded of the source and goal of all life as we worship the One who breathes life into everything that exists. May we receive God’s grace to commit to the holy work of tending to life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

St. Joe and me

I have been praying to St. Joe, the earthly father of Jesus, a lot lately.

I call him St. Joe instead of St. Joseph because shortening his name makes him more real to me, like a friend. When I pray to saints it is helpful for me to behave like we are in relationship; change occurs on a relational level.

I am a single, 27-year-old female who is not trying to sell a home or become a carpenter. Although I have little in common with St. Joe, we have been having a lot of chats.

I am a nanny by trade and the majority of my week is spent loving and taking care of other people’s children. I educate, wash the clothes and change the diapers of little ones.

St. Joe is my friend through all of this labor because, when it comes to loving the children of others, I am pretty sure there is no one better to model my heart after. I am often tired and drained in this work. The words I say seem to bounce right off the back of the energetic four-year old. Frustrated again and again, I turn to St. Joe:

“Please help me to love this child like you love Jesus.

Help me to not get caught up in the frustrations of the day-to-day.”

This simple prayer calms and encourages me to think more deeply about the dynamics of the Holy Family. I find myself wondering, just as I do about myself, if St. Joseph knew how difficult raising a child would be, if he ever doubted that what he was doing mattered and if the love he provided was enough.

While teaching children as a nanny, I am learning too. It shows me that loving people is messy and imperfect, that God gives us the saints to encourage us and to help us strive for holiness. They are given as gifts because God loves us so infinitely and provides examples of people just like us who have become saints. Similarly, as I explore and deepen my faith Jesus’ lessons on loving children, especially as a non-biological parent like St. Joe, inspire me.

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“I have had this Holy Family music box since I was two,” says Alicia, “I simply adore the way Mary and Joseph are looking at baby Jesus.” (Image courtesy Alicia Grumley)

And the more I talk to St. Joe about caring for children not our own, I realize we have even more in common. I am loved very deeply by a stepparent. As I look at the role St. Joseph plays in the life of Jesus and the role my own stepmom plays in mine, I realize that by taking on the responsibilities of loving another’s child we open our hearts to being conductors of the spiritual works of mercy. We embrace all seven of them: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.

I know that, throughout her marriage to my dad, my stepmom has and continues to do all of this for me and my brothers. I suspect that St. Joe would have also practiced these works of mercy with Jesus. I imagine that there were times when St. Joe prayed to be better at these things, just like I do.

So what do I, a single 27-year-old non-homeowner and non-carpenter have in common? Love. Lots and lots of love by the will of God, mercy. I know I need it, and I know I can grow by practicing it.

Thanks for the example, St. Joe.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.

 

Made to make God more present

I am in a dim hospital room, standing at the foot of the bed, a small video camera gripped in my hands. I am trying to hold the camera steady and silence my sobs while I watch one of the most incredible, beautiful scenes I have ever observed: the entrance of a new child into the world.

The woman birthing this child has asked me to be here and record this sacred moment. Before today, I’ve accompanied her to several doctor appointments and listened to her talk about her dreams. I am trying to support her through a lot of changes; she is formerly homeless and now a resident at a transitional living program, Tubman House in Sacramento, California, where I am serving as a Jesuit Volunteer.

The year is 2005, and I have recently begun an application to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Doing so means moving toward a public renouncement of…

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

 

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Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

God-centered mundane matters

God is the center of my life.

Really, I mean it. God is my life.  God consumes my life. Most of my time, thoughts, and tasks have to do with God.

I wish I could tell you it’s completely great.

Many mornings, as I hit the snooze button on my alarm, I think ‘God! Already!?” Then I fall back asleep imagining (No, actually knowing) that God is really right in my room with me, like a good, loving protector. When I finally do rally, brew and gulp coffee, I talk to God some more.

Then there’s my job, my ministry. I am a high school religion teacher and I am a Franciscan Sister, for goodness sake. Everything I say or do gives witness to my life with God. It’s constant faith sharing. I pray with my students, try to listen to them and do my best to love and teach with joy. I read a lot about God and learn as much as possible so I know what I am talking about (at least somewhat)! I prepare presentations, lessons, assignments and activities in order to inform and inspire others in their own journey with God. I grade piles and piles of endless papers and read essays by my students centered on–yup, you guessed it–God, again. It’s a lot of work and I never can keep up. Work all centered on God.

My non-teaching time (there seems to be so little of it nowadays) is spent on activities that are centered on God too. I think a lot about God. I talk to God. I make lists of all the God-related topics that I want to blog about for all of you here (and wonder when I’ll ever do it). When I do write it’s God-related, of  course. My other tasks like reading, up-keeping my relationships, eating and praying with my sisters, playing and even the too-rarely exercising also have to do with God in one way or another. Sometimes I get to be crafty, or cook or enjoy nature–or maybe I’ll do chores like my laundry. That’s God stuff too.

I am not complaining. I like it this way. I am grateful that I get to focus so much energy and time on God. God is the love of my life, seriously.

I am not bragging either–I’m just saying. Even though I am so all about God I feel so unsatisfied. My relationship with God is just as hard as anybody else’s. Desire is a funny thing. We can be so unfulfilled, even if we focus a lot on what we desire most. St. Augustine was onto something when he said “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, Oh God.”  Maybe the problem is the rest part.

I am beginning to wonder if my struggle this Lent (or is it during this phase of my life in general?) is about learning how to let my relationship with God evolve.  There was a phase in my life when I was totally head-over-heels in love with God. Wow, that was great! It was basically euphoric: I was consumed with joy because I kept experiencing God’s awesomeness. According to my friends, they knew I was well when I joyfully proclaimed “God is so good!” a lot. I still say that, but I wonder it’s just becoming more monotone.

Maybe my relationship with God is just getting more grown-up. I wonder if God just wants we me to accept maturity. Will I remain faithful and zesty even if I am not always feeling it? What is my love for God centered on?  How can I connect and keep going even when things start to seem strangely bland?

Maybe God and I really are getting to be like a long-married couple in different parts of the house together, quietly doing our thing and just having joy in the presence of each other. Awww.

But, what’s a sister to do when life is more than physical labor and she’s still wanting to just be with God in it all? What if the constant mind stretching, ever-chaotic work is an exhausting and demanding ministry of teaching? How can I connect to God in that mess?

I am reading a book that’s helping me feel a bit better about my dissatisfaction and inadequacies. This is one of its lessons:

“God’s incarnation in Jesus might suggest something startling about the importance of housework: like housework, redemption is physical. God doesn’t stand around watching humanity go to hell in a handbasket; he gets his own hands dirty by sending his Son to heave us in from the muck.  In Jesus, God is cleaning up the mess.”

I am starting to think that this same lesson applies to the mess and all the mundane tasks in my classroom. All work is probably a type of cleaning up.

God is all about creating order out of chaos. It’s hard, tedious, on-going, repetitive work. Grading papers shall be endless, like housework. The preparing, reading, and tidying will always build up on my desk. And in that messy, daily labor I too can unite with God.

It’s a good thing that God is the center of my life, I might pay better attention.