The peace we’ve been given

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
John 14:27

as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
this is the peace that allows
this is the peace that accepts
this is the peace that invites
transformation, emergence
outreach, courage, trust, love
this peace causes commotion
this peace deepens consciousness
this peace builds community
diverse, celebrating, embracing
inner spaces open wider
minds, hearts and bodies
wildly restored and offered
into war zones as peacemakers
crossing borders and lines
we listen and love and learn
new languages, new ways
as peacemakers we share
and change
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
as peace

Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

disciples-running
“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

My celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love

On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

three-women-taxi
Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Sarah Hennessey, Julia Walsh and Eileen McKenzie sharing the love of community (image courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA).

What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?

I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.

For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.

group-of-many-Franciscan-sisters
Many FSPA, including Sisters Sarah and Julia, celebrate community at a Post-Vatican II gathering. (image courtesy of Sister Katie Mitchell)

Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.  

Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.

Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL

I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.

Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”

I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.

As Mechthild of Magdeburg wrote in the 1200s,

“Lord, you are my lover,

My longing,

My flowing stream,

My sun,

And I am your reflection.”

Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey 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, singing 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 Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

Finding common ground in the din of debate

Debate divides this nation, and democracy is in disarray.

On one hand, we enjoy light, good-natured disagreements:

— Is the dress blue and black or white and gold?

Photo credit: https://www.zenia.com/2015/11/19/black-and-blue-dress/

— Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?

And then, there are the more serious debates; the ones that could be causing our civility to crumble.

The latest is emotional, intense: were the high school students recently filmed in DC being racist and mocking Native Americans? Or, were they just caught up in a complex situation?

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.

Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

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.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice

The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.

One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.

Mostar, Bosnia, a city heavily bombed during during the war in Yugoslavia covered by Chris Hedges while he was a war correspondent (photo by Sophie Vodvarka)

Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.

Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.

I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.

I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.

The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.

This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:

1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.

2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.

3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sophie Vodvarka

Photo courtesy Sophie Vodvarka

 

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.

God, the Ocean

A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.

(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)

I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away,  and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.

(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.

You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark. 

On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.

Sunset at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A couple of days ago, while working on preparations for a writers’ retreat I am leading, my study brought me to this letter to artists by St. Pope John Paul II, which I didn’t know about before. A quick read brought me to this phrase, a total thrill:

“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” – St. Pope John Paul II

Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.

This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.

St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.

And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.

I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.

Will you come and swim with me?

At Cape Point, South Africa in 2002.

Dark Devotional: Getting Naked

The trees are getting naked around here.

The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.

It’s a stripping.

And, a great modeling of love.

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.

– Deuteronomy 6:5

Radical discipleship demands a bold love from me, from you. God seems to expect the giving back of our whole selves to… [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos, about the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary TimeContinue reading here.]

Toward the fire

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.

franciscan-sistesrs-house-fire

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.

franciscan-sisters-flames

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

Steven-Cottam-babySteven 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.

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.

You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.

This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.

This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.

And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.

The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.

But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.

I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.

And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.

The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.

Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.

Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.

Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.

If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

When Jesus came to the ER

It may have been one of the loneliest moments in my life. I was alone in a small, bare triage room with only an examining table. An armed guard was posted outside the door. My clothes had been taken from me and I was wearing a flimsy gown that opened in the back. I was barefoot. I stayed like this for two and a half very long hours. I felt totally alone.

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I had just checked myself into the emergency room for depression. Through years of struggle and ups and downs, I had reached a low point. I did not feel capable of keeping myself safe so I turned to hospitalization. What I didn’t know was that in this moment of crisis, while I waited to be examined and for a room to open on the unit, that I would feel so utterly alone and abandoned.

The hospitalization ended up being quite helpful and I was able to get to a better space in my life with more stability. Months later, while I was on retreat, the memory of the small room returned to me in prayer. Through the eyes of prayer, this is what I saw:

I’m alone, sitting on the bare, cold floor. A security guard waits outside the room, keeping watch. Then the door opens and Jesus walks through. Jesus looks like a farmer woman. She’s wearing blue jean overalls and has black curly hair that overflows her tender face. She looks at me and smiles and suddenly, I don’t feel so alone. Jesus walks in the room and sits down on the floor behind me. She encircles me with her arms. I lean back and place my head on her heart. I am surrounded with love. All at once, we are in a beautiful field umbrellaed by a bright blue sky. Instead of a bare, tile floor we are sitting on the soft earth with our feet and hands digging into the dark, rich dirt. We stand up and she takes my hand. We are running in the field filled with stunning wild flowers. I feel free and happy. I know Jesus is with me.

That prayer helped to heal my memory. It also taught me an important lesson. I am never alone. Jesus is always with me. Especially in those moments when I feel most abandoned, there are times that I am most closely accompanied by the Living Christ. When life gets messy, Jesus shows up. This lesson has helped sustain me through other difficult moments and helped me be present to others when they are struggling. It has also taught me about love.

 

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Love is a letting go, a stripping of self, an abandon of control. I also firmly believe that love is the entire purpose of our lives. I see love as an endless stream of hot, fiery lava. In some place or time that lava flows without end. But here on Earth, love crusts over like lava does when it hits cold air. We spend our lives bumping into other people’s crusts. We spend our lives learning how to open up and to love more completely. That is why we are here.

Depression has taught me that through my darkest moments, I am not alone. Even though it is a struggle to always see it, I am deeply loved. Jesus is with me. My friends and family and sisters in community are with me. I still have something to give. I can hold the hand of someone else when they are in the darkness. I can be a small light for them. I can be the voice of love because through experience I know we all walk together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey 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, singing 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 Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.