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.

The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

broken-cup-by-Julia-Walsh
Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

Loving wide open

The gaps are quickly filling in between the branches as more and more leaves open up each day.

"gaps for growth" by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“gaps for growth” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As more leaves open and crowd the trees with bright color I am reminded how we are also like small leaves–alone, we are vulnerable and hopeful. Together we are strong and form a bold, bright, colorful community.

"new leaf" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“new leaf” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We must not stay attached to any certain way-of-being. We must be open to growth, to change and conversion.

"new leaf 2" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“new leaf 2” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

The leaves, like Jesus, teach me great lessons. Through their example I see how to give of myself for the sake of others. I learn how to give into growth for the sake of love.

This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:12-13

May we all remain open to the growth and sacrifice that God calls us to for the sake of others. Amen! 

Volumes of vibrancy

 

 

 Even with the season’s change and fading colors,

I will remember the brightness and beauty of where I have been and what I have seen.

The folds of these flowers frozen now in photos reminds me of yes:

God’s beauty holds mystery.

Yes, all of creation contains volumes of vibrancy!

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Italy ~ July 2014: photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Denmark ~ July 2014: photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Minnesota ~ September 2014: photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

People watching and categories

I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed something about myself while I have been bopping around Chicago the past few days.

Here goes: I tend to be really judgmental. There, you have it. What an ugly admission.

Let me explain. As I walk down streets, go through crowds and sit at train stations, I try not to ignore people. Basically, I do a lot of people watching. As I watch people, I try to be open to whatever interaction I may have with them.

"People Watching Zone" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I play a little game as I people watch. That’s where the judgmentalism comes in. I guess what categories people fall into and what their life might be like. I imagine stories about the characters I encounter based on a few clues: what they are wearing, what’s in their hands, and their body shape.

I am totally jumping to conclusions and trying to read a book by its cover! This all happens exclusively in my mind, simply for entertainment or as a distraction from the studying I ought to be focusing on. It’s like I have a habit of playing a little traveling game, meeting people and then making up stories. I am just not sure that it’s a good habit.

I hope it’s not mean or un-loving. But, still, I realize it’s judgmental.

I know I am not unusual for noticing things about the people I meet and making guesses about them. I am pretty sure I am not strange for categorizing people and things.

The thing is, I am learning that it’s not necessarily helpful or holy to categorize people into different types of groups.

For example, this was in my reading for the moral theology class that am taking:

“We can neither divide the morally relevant features, the related moral norms and principles, nor the people involved into neat little compartments labeling the “good” white, the “bad” black, and/or the “ambiguous” grey. Life and therefore morality are not monochromatic, and any moral evaluation that would seem to suggest such a simple dichotomy should be suspect. Our moral analysis has to capture a wide variety of colors, textures, and hue, while trying to weave together from an assortment of loose threads a tapestry that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise.”                                            

 – Bretzke, James T. (2004, p. 145) A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press p. 145 

I’ll admit it. I frequently oversimplify my intake of the world and people around me because of my bad habit of categorizing.

In order to inspire appreciation of how our Christian lives need to “capture a wide variety of colors, textures and hue … that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise” I have created a little photo mediation. Enjoy!

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shells meditation

Sometimes

I feel small and insignificant

like one of many tiny seashells

on an expansive shore.

“fragile” by Julia Walsh FSPA

I don’t understand the science of seashells.

 I wonder how they grow;

is it like me,

from the inside out?

An inner transformation for the greater good?

I can crack and crumble

and become a fleck of tiny sand.

But I am awakened for the sake of mission!

Yes, I can crack and crumble.

Or, I can sparkle and be strong ground for new life growing.

Or, I can offer a home of shelter for a creature in need.

Or, I can go back to the waves of the sea

and see where the mystery

of God’s love

might carry me.

By God’s grace

I am one of many,

but I am free!

crossing shadows

No matter where I am in the world- where I am in my life- I continue to be fascinated with how light and dark dance together.  As I journey with Jesus through transitions and changes, I continue to be in wonder and awe of how I experience Christ’s presence in the shadows, the cracks, the hidden, silent places.  As my faith deepens, it seems that God is not a God of only what is black and white and crystal clear; rather, God is fully alive in the places made of the energy of grey.

Here’s a collection of some of my photography from the times when I have been mesmerized with the glory of God in the silent spaces as I follow Jesus; the beauty of crossing shadows.

“hush” KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation Synagogue, Chicago, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh
“wild wonder” Wisconsin, USA; photography by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“in adoration” St. Rose Convent, La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA
“upon effigies” Effigy Mound National Monument, Marquette, Iowa, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“holy ground” Avila, Spain; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“ways to go” Chicago, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Christ of colors” Reading, Pennsylvania, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“blooms” Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Illinois, USA; photography by Julia Walsh FSPA
“in the shallows” Sparrow Lake, Ontario, Canada; photography by Julia Walsh

Sometimes, when such silent shadows stun me I remember this song, by Jars of Clay called “Fade to Grey.”

alive in the studio

Trying to be a faithful Christian sometimes feels like living in God’s limitless art studio.

God is the Great Artist who is always at work creating us anew.  We get to co-create and this communion brings us closer to God.

Since ending my ministry at the high school my creativity has been slightly out of control. I have felt like I can’t keep up with the energy that has been trying to express itself.  My room has become more of an art studio than a bedroom. It is littered with paper scraps and my fingernails continue to be caked with glue, clay and paint.  God is at work and I am working to cooperate.

Apparently, being released from a stressful and demanding ministry has had an interesting impact on me.  Although little of the creativity has manifested on this blog, a lot of the holy integrations of my the past few years have been breaking loose and causing some good contemplation.

As I’ve been constructing, I’ve been thinking: Art can flower and force new consciousness.  And, creativity is a spiritual path: co-creating with God implies union with God. Truly, I can testify that when I create new things with God I experience God’s presence and energy in ways that truly astound me.  How does one describe feeling God’s energy?

For the union to exist with God while I create, I have to be open and trust. When I am writing, sculpting and painting I have to let go and let God, as cliche as it may be.  The final product is not up to me.  If I want the creations to truly glorify God, I must be empty and allow God’s creative power to be in control.  Really, I’ve found that at times a meditative trance can take over and the blessed buzz of blending words, images and textures can manifest meanings that are beyond me.  It’s really awesome.

Plus, good creativity is very messy.  Like in a healthy ecosystem, new life breaks forth out of rotting death.  The holy paschal mystery is alive and well in the chaos.  Seemingly bizarre artifacts can be combined to create something completely unusual, yet totally beautiful.  When I stand up and look at the big picture, the creative space can appear as if a storm has swept through.  Really though, there’s an order and a clarity in the mixtures. I am often surprised.  I learn a lot about God’s ways when I see the chaos of creating.

The main art project that has consumed my time and energy was building mini-grottos to pray for issues of peace and justice.  These diorama-type shrines will be prayed with by my community during our Education Week gathering this week.  The justice and peace committee that I am a part of hopes to increase consciousness, conversation and prayer around the issues of immigration, food, economics, education, church and health care.   Here’s a preview of the art for all the sisters and affiliates who read this blog:

“mighty money: a grotto to pray for economic justice”    by Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

In the building of the God’s reign, God is the Great Artist.  God is in control and we get to cooperate, often times completely clueless about the finished product.  Let’s trust God in our personal development and in the complicated messes of systemic injustices.  Let’s also do our part to help create new works of art.  When it’s up to God, new life can create new consciousness.  We never really know how other creatures shall absorb a new meaning from something we had a part in.

Alive in each of us, God is constantly clipping and creating art anew.  Wow, I love living in this art studio.