Anxious resistance

I had a knot in my stomach all day. I couldn’t focus at work. I lost my appetite. I felt exhausted as soon as I woke up. My mind was running with a thousand scenarios of things going wrong. I became keenly aware of that familiar feeling: a low-grade but persistent anxiousness; a lump that sits somewhere between my heart and stomach warning me of something to be feared; an impending lack of control.

It was March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday. For the past three weeks I had been meeting with fellow community members of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker and our friends from the Mennonite Worker to plan a vigil and direct action. Our intent was to lovingly, but boldly, address the American Catholic Church’s reluctance in naming the xenophobia and racism that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency. We sought to implore Archbishop Hebda and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release a public statement directly addressing the rise of xenophobia in our Church and society.

Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After work I sped home to prepare for the action. My mind was spiraling as we packed our car with a banner, ladders, candles and ropes. I thought of my heroes and their steely determination. Their seemingly complete lack of fear. I thought of the iconic photo of Dorothy Day picketing with Cesar Chavez, calmly gazing into the eyes of a police officer right before her final arrest at the age of 75. I thought of Daniel Berrigan on trial for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Seemingly unaffected by a pending threeyear sentence to federal prison, Dan boldly proclaimed to the court, “We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty and if necessary our lives: the violence stops here.”   

With my mind and heart racing amidst a cascade of doubts and fears, I felt like I had missed the memo. The seeming difference between my anxiousness and their prophetic conviction was laughable. I wondered about Dorothy’s doubts and Dan’s fears. Did they have them? Or had God given them some kind of divine courage for holy conflict that rendered their doubts and anxieties obsolete?  

And, most importantly, when will God give that to me?!

As a white Midwesterner, conflict avoidance is my cultural bread and butter. Growing up, tension or disagreement were to be feared and resented. They were signs of something gone irrevocably wrong; something over which to feel tremendously anxious. Yet here I was, about to help manufacture an almost-assuredly tense situation within a Church I call home. I found myself doubting, searching in vain for Dorothy-like divine courage. Is this worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Is the conflict, the worry, the anxiousness necessary?

Dorothy-Day
Image of Dorothy Day by Bob Fitch

While I wrestled with these doubts, fears and questions, a small inner voice (which I often resent) assured me that Jesus’ answer would be a resounding “Yes!” It’s become painfully clear to me I cannot claim to be Christian and deny Jesus’ call for direct action, which leads to inevitable conflict and anxiousness. While it’s incredibly important for me to take care of myself and not stretch beyond what I can handle, Jesus’s social vision clearly calls the most comfortable of us into discomfort. As in Mark 10: 17-27, Jesus did not lovingly challenge the rich, young man to give safely within the confines of comfortable charity but to relinquish all his wealth for the service of others.

Jesus’ is an orientation toward loving and creative tension; a tension resulting in Christ’s inherent opposition to oppression. Soon before he was crucified Jesus and his disciples staged a direct action at the Jerusalem temple, confronting temple authorities’ collaboration with the Roman Empire and exploitation of the poor. In analyzing Jesus’s incident at the temple, the biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in his book “Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark” that “Judaism was not the problem [for Jesus]. The problem was the imperial captivity of the temple and its authorities’ collaboration with the Empire.

In her “National Catholic Reporter” article Jamie Manson explains that many American bishops likely refrained from critiquing Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric because of social and economic gains to be gleaned from his presidency. She writes, “In the course of the presidential campaign, the bishops’ conference put out one press release about promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue and one release about “partisan divides” on migration issues. But as Trump inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes and violence toward women, the bishops remained mum … the evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.”  

The bishops’ behavior is tragically similar to the conduct Jesus condemned at the temple within his own religious tradition. Their silence is proving lethal. President Trump has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and violence directed at many of the most oppressed and marginalized. Much of his executive action is in direct contradiction to the core of Catholic social teaching. In an attempt to follow Jesus’s call into discomfort and to mirror the loving tension he manufactured within the religious institution he called home, I came to see our Ash Wednesday action as not only necessary on a political level, but completely in line with my Catholic identity.

I have also come to see the inevitable anxiousness as not only necessary but also sacramental. While I must be aware of my limits and the reality of unhealthy anxiety, especially in the form of mental illness, I see some level of anxiousness as a gift; a signpost on my journey toward Christian discipleship. An indication that—with God’s help—I can to learn to embrace fear and then to let it go.

We pulled up to the Cathedral of St. Paul during the evening Ash Wednesday service, gathered our equipment, took a deep breath and were off. We ran up the stairs and leaned extension ladders on the two large marble pillars framing the cathedral’s front door. Two Catholic Workers ascended the ladders and hung a large banner reading “Speaking up for unborn lives more than black and brown lives is white supremacy – #silenceissin” across the door, calling on Church hierarchy to condemn racism and xenophobia with as much tenacity and consistency as it does abortion.

banner-cathedral
Banner hung from Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After hanging the banner we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer. Several of us engaged with passers by and church goers leaving Mass. We encountered a range of reactions from disdain to joyful support. Eventually, a priest came out with a small group of men. He read the banner, immediately instructed the men to tear it down and quickly moved back inside, choosing not to engage with us. (Check out this time-lapse video of our experience.)

Before leaving we sang a beautiful but haunting rendition of the Kyrie. As the doleful melody rose into the snowy sky, I felt the anxiousness drain from every limb of my body. What replaced it was a confident calm and deep joy. In that brief moment, I felt the fortitude of Dorothy and Dan within me. I let the cold air slowly fill my lungs, breathing out all the tangled thoughts, unraveling the knot in my stomach. The anxiousness died and resurrected, transformed within me. Another deep breath. I was right where God was calling me to be.

Note from the Editor:

Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Bishop Bernard Hebda makes reference to these events of Ash Wednesday in the March 9 edition of “The Catholic Spirit.” Read it here.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Krusea friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

 

Fear, darkness, and Advent

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.

photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/
Photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/

Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.

I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.

Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.

In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.

Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.

Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.

When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.

At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.

Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.

Joseph_Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.

Being merciful to yourself in the Year of Mercy

Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!

My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.

Photo Credit: http://images.marianweb.net/archives/library/bemerciful.jpg

Here are a few:

  1. Having a thought does not make it true

I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…

  1. Neither repress nor obsess

When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.

  1. I can’t. God can. Let God.

This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”

  1. People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).

When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…

  1. Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.

Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.

  1. God. God. God.

Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:

  • Give everything to God.
  • Increase my self-care.
  • Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
  • Choose to use the elements in my toolbox: prayer, exercise, support and healthy mental (sk)illness (which I wrote about in “Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed”).

And …

I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.

mercy meme

About The Rabble Rouser

Sister Sarah Hennessy 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, playing guitar 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.

 

Spiritual rights for the mentally (sk)illed

So, this week some depression symptoms have come back.

Fatigue, heaviness, a dull pull at the sides of my mouth, a silent scream in my throat, anxiousness, and a few intrusive thoughts of self-harm.

But, I’m a veteran. I know what to do.

  1. Give it to Jesus.
  2. Increase self-care.
  3. Decrease stress.
  4. Pull out my toolbox of skills.  For me it includes mindfulness, grounding, centering, exercise, contemplation, affirmations, walking with mantras, pushing on walls, calling friends, journaling, healthy eating, support groups, therapy, spiritual direction, and being honest with myself and all my support people.

A few days ago when it was going a bit rough, Jesus and I sat down and had a talk about it. I’m struggling to break out of old coping mechanisms and make a new choice. It feels healthy and I know it’s the right thing to do but dude—it is still physically and emotionally hard!  Jesus said to me, “I got you. I know you can do this. You have the external support and the internal resilience to make this change at this time. And if you don’t, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You didn’t do it wrong before, and you don’t have to do it that way again.” With those words, I felt both freedom from the pain of my past and joy in choices of the future.

For me, my struggles with mental health have always had a spiritual component, and often that aspect’s ignored by the community around me. Some friends and I wrote up a list of what we consider to be the “Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks.” The term “mad folks” is a way to talk back the labels put on us as stigmas behind our backs and claim our own identity in the world, similar to when the word “Black” became more common for African-Americans. I also prefer the terms “mental (sk)illness” or “neurological diversity.” It’s a way of claiming the gifts of the reality that we live with; not pathologizing our identity.

Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks include:

  • the right to have a “dark night of the soul” without one’s experience being attributed to a brain disease or a disordered personality.
  • the right to speak of one’s experiences without fear of harm or recrimination by authorities.
  • the right to not have our spirituality viewed as a product of our diagnosis or as otherwise pathological.
  • the right to appropriate support during times of spiritual emergency.
  • the right to claim our mad gifts within a spiritual community or context.
  • the right to be reverenced as a person of dignity.
  • the right to companionship and affirmation on the spiritual path.

What if these rights were all just universally embraced in every place of worship and spiritual community? What a wild and beautiful world that would be! I dream a place where it’s okay to think you are the Messiah. Where walking in the void of darkness and the fear of demons are believed. Where the daily perseverance to get through a day is not disregarded, but honored and celebrated.

Change-Direction-five-signs
Five signs that may indicate a call for compassion, empathy, understanding and support.

Our “mental health” system may be broken beyond repair. Far too many go without the basic care they need. When I moved to La Crosse, I had to wait seven months for an appointment with a provider to manage my medications. Globally, the situation is even worse. Our old ways of coping and hiding people away just don’t work.

I have found little glimmers of hope and a community of people just like me, dreaming wildly and working for change. Internet community The Icarus Project tries to help us navigate “the space between brilliance and madness” and “transform ourselves by transforming the world around us.” The support groups and daily skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy focus on mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and relationship skills. This is the super tool box of concrete skills that make life worth living again! Also, I have found regular attendance in a Depressed Anonymous group and working the program’s 12 Steps a real way to live hopefully and turn it all over to Jesus, my Higher Power. (I connect with Emotions Anonymous too.)

Signs-of-Suffering-note-in-hand
FSPA actively and intrinsically supports its pledge to Change Direction.

And, my FSPA congregation is actively participating in the nation-wide Campaign to Change Direction to raise awareness of the five signs of suffering and to deter future suicides.

We never walk alone. For me, my mental (sk)illness requires the constant companionship of Jesus, my faith community, recovery community, and all my loved ones. We dream a new world. We dream hope and live bravely into a new tomorrow, each and every day.

 

 

Sunset-Mississippi-River
Mississippi River sunset (courtesy of Sarah Hennessey, FSPA)