Dear eighth-grade class of 2013

By guest blogger Steven Cottam

I am a religious education teacher at a K-8 Catholic school in Chicago, Ill. The final assignment for my eighth-grade class, inspired by Epiphaneia Network’s Eighth Letter Project, is to write an open letter to the church, giving a piece of advice they feel the church needs to hear. This is my response to them, my open letter to the eighth-grade class as we part ways and they head on to high school. In the hopes that it may speak to other young people (and the young at heart), I have posted it here.

Dear eighth-grade class of 2013,

If I could impart to you one piece of advice it would be this: break the rules.

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This might seem to be strange advice, as over this last year you have all proven to be so adept at breaking the rules. Collectively, you have broken almost every rule our school has. Some of you have disregarded assignment guidelines and deadlines; have played fast and loose with our school’s plagiarism and conduct policies; and became well-studied in the most liberal interpretations of our school’s dress code. This makes you, as far as eighth graders go, fairly average—no better and no worse than any eighth-grade class I have ever known (or been a part of). But what I hope you will realize is that these are petty rules and petty breakings—breaking them changes nothing. When you wear a skirt that’s a bit too short or knowingly turn in a late assignment in the wrong format, it’s a futile bit of instigation that actually plays into everyone’s expectations about who young people are and how they act. When you try to be edgy or daring in this way you are neither: you frustrate an authority figure for a moment and play into a script that you inherited pre-written. You break the same rules your parents broke; and that their parents broke; and backwards ad infinitum through the history of adolescents to the dawn of schools.

No: what I am calling you to is a far grander and vaster rebellion. I’m telling you to really break the rules. Not the rules that are laminated and posted around the classrooms in which you dwell but the deeper, unwritten ones that tell you how to act and what (and who) to care about.

The rules that tell you when someone strikes at you with a mean comment or a harsh action that it is only fitting to retaliate. The rules that tell you it makes sense to spend as much money as you care to on the latest gadget or fad, but it makes no sense to spend $2 buying someone down on their luck a cup of coffee; the same rule that tells you to spend as much time as possible on your own entertainment, but that it is a waste of time to have a genuine conversation with the person for whom you just bought coffee. The rules that tell you that, if you must, feel free to give a buck or two to charity, but for God’s sake keep your distance and never for a second look less than respectable. The rules that tell you that you win the game by advancing your own individual hopes and dreams, no matter who you have to step on our what you need to do to achieve them, no matter whether you hopes and dreams are really healthy or holy ones in the first place. That keeping score matters; that you win by defeating others; that protecting your own interests and ambitions lies at the heart of all worthy endeavors.

These rules will lock you into a life of graceless toil if you let them. You’ll reach the end of your days with a long resume and a lot of toys, and the world will be as broken as it was when you entered it.

Break those rules—rebel against them with every breath you take. Forgive those who don’t seem to deserve it. Turn down the high-paying career for the one that makes a difference. Refuse to envy those who have more than you and to disparage those who have less. Refuse to be anxious about what the future holds. Respond to someone else’s pain, even when it’s inconvenient or difficult or costly to do so. Eat with and laugh with and spend time with people who do not advance your social standing; people you would be tempted to call an enemy if you weren’t such a rule breaker.

What the world needs isn’t your obedience but your subversion. It needs an insurrection of people willing to love when they are told not to. You’re breaking all the wrong rules. You’re following all the wrong rules. Break every single rule that keeps you from keeping the One, Great Rule of the One, Great Rabbi.

The world needs your subversion. Break the rules.

Your friend in the struggle,

Mr. Cottam

Dear Aemiliana, Dear Sarah

Note: Mother Aemiliana Dirr founded the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1849.  After difficulties fulfilling their mission, she and some other sisters left the order in 1860 and lived out the rest of their lives as lay women.  I have written Mother Aemiliana a letter.

July 28, 2011

Dear Aemiliana,

My heart is so tender as I write to you.  It’s been a while.

You came to the states leaving all and you met tragedy and you left all again.  You know renunciation, the acid smell of fear, the biting taste of anger, and His love which propelled you forward.

We are still your daughters.  We have not left.  I think we are faithful to these times.  We are wacky, prayerful, and down-home.  Your daughters spread Franciscan joy, do justice, honor the earth and strive to live authentic relationships with each other.  Your dream has spread.  We have prayed in perpetual adoration for 133 years.  Right now two sisters kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the needs of the world.  We use email now, to receive intentions from around the whole planet, but you probably knew that.

You may wonder why I am writing after all these years.  In a few weeks, I will profess final vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration.  My heart is on fire.  I know God calls me here and leads me on to follow my sweet Jesus with my sisters.  I am not alone.  My sisters know me, they love me, forgive me, and have not left me.

Religious life is now beyond what you could ever imagine.  We are a balm to a hurting, searching humanity.  Yes.  We may be prophets of a future not our own.  Yes.  We are faithful and strong and small.  We sit in the dark night and wait.  We tend the fire you left and wait for the breath of the Holy Spirit.  We are singing new songs, one “in love and purpose, with diversity of persons and gifts” as our FSPA constitutions say.

And Aemiliana, with all the challenges the future could hold for us, I stand here on the cusp of my perpetual vows with a question of my own.  Will I be enough?  I am afraid my fragility will overtake my gifts.  I fear even that my gift of self will not be whole enough.  I am sure you may remember that feeling as you first stepped on this soil or when you left in faith.  And yet, God stayed with you.  And in a funny way, you stayed with us too.  Because you let the vision lead you and walked past walls of fear.

I need you to help me do that now.  My sisters walk beside me in love.  They help me name the pain and the joy and place both prayerfully in god’s hands.  I cannot do it alone.  But, somehow, it seems He didn’t ask me too.

May God Bless You,

And know you are in my prayers.


Sr. Sarah Hennessey, FSPA


Note: After writing our foundress a letter in preparation for final vows, I journalled back a letter from her.

Dear Sarah,

Fear is not a threat, but can be our friend, when held lightly and placed in God’s hands. I walked through the fire of fear and abandonment, through shame and uncertainty, but never alone.  My future seemed like a failure.

We do not get to choose the circumstances that try our faith, but only our faithfulness to God’s love.  So stop trying to grasp so tightly.

Child, you can let go of your harsh judgments and let the love of your sisters and Jesus into your heart just a little more.  You, my daughter, have an inner strength you do not suspect, and a mission of love to compel you onwards.

And you are right, you are not alone.

May God bless you and your sisters as you continue to build the kingdom.

In the Love of God,