Spoilin’ for a fight

The Rebel Alliance’s dramatic assault against the Death Star, the X-Men’s desperate struggle against the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles squaring off against The Shredder: these characters compose the narrative of my childhood. I have been utterly shaped by this litany of beloved good guys and their unending fight against their villains. Every Saturday morning and weekday afternoon it was the Power Rangers/Planeteers/Ghostbusters vs. the forces of darkness, myself firmly entrenched in the fight, shoulder to shoulder with the heroes.

A collection of childhood toys.
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

And, in addition to these fictional narratives, the real young me learned that often a fight is just what it takes to make the world a more just place. On more than one occasion when I was bullied (and parents and teachers couldn’t be bothered to notice or care) I found that a bop on the nose worked well to end my oppression. My 10-year-old self knew that the primary means of changing the world for the better came at the end of a hero’s fist.

As I have aged, I’ve certainly introduced nuance and complexity into my inner world. I know the fault lines of good and evil are rarely so obvious as they were for the Turtles; that they run straight through the center of every human heart instead. And yet, the frequency of which I think of myself as a fighter hasn’t changed at all. I might not have bopped anyone on the nose recently but in my mind’s eye, I still fight a lot. A lot. I fight things big and small. I fight against hunger and I fight for social justice. I fight against procrastination, temptation, and my lower self. I fight incivility and extremism. I fight off drowsiness and boredom. I fight countless seen and unseen enemies all day long.

Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares statue at the United Nations Headquarters, New York City. Photograph credit: Rodsan18

And I have become convinced of the recklessness of this rhetoric.

In a fight, there is always a loser. There’s not always a winner but there is always a loser. And though I have learned very little in my short life on this earth I have realized this: people hate to lose. If someone loses a fight, rarely do they limp off and self-reflect and convert their heart. More frequently they lick their wounds, bide their time and come back swinging to even the score. Then the victor becomes the vanquished, and vice versa, and the cycle begins anew. We get stuck in it; become addicted to it.

Conceiving everything as a fight sets you up for failure. In my fight for social justice, who am I trying to beat? No one. In my fight against my bad habits, who am I trying to defeat? Myself? An idea? It’s nonsensical and it’s rarely helpful. I’d much rather win people over to a better way of being, myself included, than beat them into it.

And I’m not saying we should never fight; never perceive of our struggles as a fight. Such language has its place. St. Michael the Archangel is a warrior, and St. Paul tells us we have an obligation to fight real evil (Ephesians 6:12). The Lord goes before and fights on behalf of his people (Deuteronomy 20:4). But turning everything into a fight deprives real struggles of their meaning. Fight language can give us power and has its place … but on the day you really need to fight for something—for your very life, for your very soul—how will the call to arms have any meaning left when its also how you refer to a Facebook spat or resisting a plate of cheese fries?

So I’m vowing today to stop fighting so much. I’ll work, struggle, strive, and strain for a better world. I’ll endure, withstand, and persevere against temptation. I’ll debate, persuade, convince, invite, entreat, and enter into discussion with my ideological opponents. I imagine this paradigm shift will not be easy, but I will pray for strength from the one who blesses the peacemakers.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven 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.

The Language of Assisi

I’m in Assisi, in Italy. I’ve been here for over a week now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am here on pilgrimage, participating in a program with Franciscan Pilgrimages. It’s an incredible 24-day program. We are a group of newer Franciscans who mostly are discerning/preparing for final vows. Basically, each day has a format: a guided tour of a certain Franciscan site, mass, free time at the site, lunch (pranzo), free time and naps (repossa) in the afternoon, a lecture about Franciscan history or spirituality, a prayer service and supper (cena) and then maybe an evening walk or sunset viewing.

The rhythm of prayer, learning, community, solitude, and adventure that we have fallen into is drastically different from my normal pace at home. Typically I try to cram too much into my days. Here, I have had to adjust to the slower pace and the experience of being a pilgrim who is on a migratory retreat. It’s been a great adjustment! I feel much more relaxed and joyful. Plus, each day has been very thought-provoking, stunning, exciting, thrilling and prayerful.

My experience ranges from the fun and exciting (like my first time in an actual castle and a discovery of a new chocolate pastry) to the more profound and significant (like the impact of prayer at the tombs of Sts. Francis and Clare). In short, a lot is going through my heart and my mind, and my journal is quickly filling.

Within the richness of this blessed time, I have been trying to pay attention to the constants. What do I find myself pondering the most? One of the constants, not surprisingly, is the effect of being in a country where I don’t speak the main language. (And no matter how much I try to remember Italian phrases, they seem to just float through my mind. It’s frustrating, but I suspect it is because I have so many other things to think about.) Certainly, I am not the only one here who doesn’t speak Italian. Even so, here are my reflections:

  • Assisi is holy ground, a medieval Christian city on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman city. The layers speak of love, joy, peacemaking, history, tradition, humility, Gospel service and now, tourism. Beauty in frescoes, pristine mountain views, wildflowers and the mysterious stone all seem to have a message. There’s a strong spiritual vibe and I keep thinking a silly question: if these stones could speak what would they say? Even an artist that I spoke to one day admitted that she loves it here because there is a great spirit about the place. I am challenged to listen and tune into my surroundings more deeply.
  • I’ve learned that I tend to be pretty wordy or chatty with people like shopkeepers and waiters. Here, I am challenged to communicate with less words, and still express my gratitude and respect. Indeed, smiles and gestures go a long way, right with “grazie” (thank you). Related, even if someone does speak English like me they may not always be hearing what I am trying to tell them, just as I may not be listening too well.
  • Most importantly, I am in awe with the beauty of the universal language of prayer. One day I was sitting in a chapel and a couple came and sat next me to in a pew. Before then, I had never heard the rosary prayed in Italian. But it didn’t take me long to know which prayers they were praying. Similarly, no matter the language that mass is in, I can tell where they are in the liturgy. This is one of the reasons I love being Catholic. Likewise, it doesn’t matter where pilgrims originate that I encounter in any chapel; we understand each other’s reverent gestures and need for quiet and space. Respect is a language too.

Overall, the languages of love and joy are permeating my experience in Assisi. I am retuning my life to the love of God and the joy that comes from knowing that love. At times, I am bursting with song and laughter, for I am so grateful for the affection that I am experiencing. The beauty, the faith, and the strength that am gaining here are all affirming my vocation: I am totally Franciscan. We Franciscans are a global family that speaks many languages. Yet, we are united together in the language of faith, for we are faithful in our desire to follow Jesus Christ and live the Gospel in the style of Francis and Clare. Thanks be to God for the languages of Assisi! Grazie! 

"Assisi at sunset" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Assisi at sunset” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA