In a time for falling

Lately, falling has been on my mind. The season for this is approaching, as leaf after leaf will soon let go and make its journey downwards, trusting the winds to take them where they need to go.

I have been thinking about the sensation of falling, but not for the reasons you might expect. It has little to do with the approach of the season of autumn, or my clumsy nature. (I’m no stranger to falls of the physical sort!) Rather, falling is on my mind because I am in transition. I recently moved into a whole new ministry and living situation, so I have been adjusting to and enjoying my new environment. During the first week here, I awoke in the dark of the night with the thought that …

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"leaves will fall" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“leaves will fall” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Challenged to trust in Mystery

Yesterday I finished packing up my classroom. A somber weight pressed upon my shoulders as I cleaned out my desk, dusted shelves and put books and picture frames in boxes.

In the silence I prayed in gratitude for the room that has held so much life and energy for me during the past four years. I smiled as I thought of the love, learning, laughter, singing, dancing, and playful energy that the four walls had held. I sighed with relief to know that I will no longer have endless piles of papers to grade or have to deal with the pressure of an academic calendar. Sadness colored the blank walls with the intensity of letting-go.

I am not sure if I’ll ever teach in a classroom again. I am not sure what the future holds. I don’t know what God has in store for me.

I know some of the general facts, of course. This fall I will begin serving as a program and retreat presenter at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin. I’ll live with some sisters from my congregation in the Spirituality Center’s lodge on Trout Lake and have the opportunity to connect with God alive in creation each and every day. I’ll continue writing and studying, hoping to complete the master’s degree I have been working on and increase my creative writing endeavors.

And, I know I’ll continue to live my life as an FSPA and that I’ll offer myself for the service of God and God’s people. I know I’ll remain connected to my family and friends. And, I believe God will continue to guide me and show me the way.

I am not afraid of the future. I am encouraged by the past. I am challenged to trust in the Mystery and remain faithful to the Truth of Love.

God’s invitation to change ministries and move on came to me like a whisper, like a gentle nudge felt both in the exterior of community life and in the solid feelings of my body and heart. Mid-Lent I was at a meeting with some of my sisters, a discernment circle. I told the other sisters that I thought I’d make a change in ministry within a couple years and read aloud a list of the things I really hoped for in wherever God called me to next: more time in nature and for writing, ministry in an area of high need, service to the poor and marginalized, a strong community life. I had all sorts of ideas about how this could look, but hadn’t even thought about moving further north and into a largely rural area.

Our God is totally a God of surprises though, and once dreams are announced to a loving community one can let go and let the Spirit show the way. After I shared my general dream in that discernment circle a couple of sisters from Marywood spoke about the needs in the Superior diocese. As they spoke, one of the FSPA I am the closest to shot me a “Are-you-hearing-this?” look that I tried to ignore. Within days, more occurrences served as glaring road signs directing me to let go of the timeline I’d created and accept that it was actually the best time for me to move onward. When I prayed about what might happen, I heard encouragement to ask the sisters at Marywood about possibilities as soon as I could. A deep peace warmed my gut and my thoughts were immediately reframed. Before I could completely catch on, the Spirit blew through and stirred up my entire life.

When things shifted for me, I was in the midst of teaching my students about the epistles of the New Testament. I spoke to my students about St. Paul’s travels and itinerant, missionary life. I described how he went into some cities–such as Corinth, Phillipi, Ephesus, and Thessalonica–for no more than a couple years and established a strong Christian community centered on Love and service in a very relational way. He would preach in synagogues and minister and offer a loving presence straight out of the store where he mended tents and in the homes of those who hosted him. He was effective as a minister because he was excellent as a communicator and relationship builder.  He was a master of maintaining relationships once he transitioned onward.

I am challenged by St. Paul’s witness in the early Church and encouraged to remain faithful to the Franciscan traditions of itineracy, preaching and poverty. I hope to maintain my own movement proclaiming the goodness of God, detached from taking possession or ownership of any particular place, ministry or group of people.

Nothing is mine. All is in the hands of God. There is a great sense of liberation in knowing this. And freedom permits me to joyfully express gratitude:

I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11

I am not sure if I’ll ever return to teaching in a high school classroom or how exactly I will be of service to God and God’s people in the long-range future. I leave, though, with faith that the future is in God’s hands.

No matter how we are nudged and encouraged, I believe that God can shine goodness into any situation and the challenge of letting go.

"Rowing on Trout Lake" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Rowing on Trout Lake” by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

The process of lightening up my living

A few weeks ago, my whole life flashed before my eyes.

Well, maybe it didn’t actually flash. But, I really did feel I re-lived my 33 years of living in five days.

In those five days, I looked at all of my stuff and made a choice about whether to keep each item (not the goal), throw it away (the least ideal), or give it away (the most ideal).

I saw my baby pictures, the stories I wrote when I was in elementary school, photos and other mementos from high school, college, and my travels. I considered each item of clothing, each book, and every office supply I have accumulated over the years.

It was emotionally exhausting. And it was terribly necessary.

You see, I moved; from a large space to a smaller place. Before I moved, I didn’t feel like I was living with integrity. So, after this move, I actually blocked out some serious time to really sort through everything I had and make a choice about whether it was necessary for me to continue carrying it around.

I had a feeling it might be hard to let go of things and I was a little afraid. I thought I had psychologically prepared myself when I devised a formula I thought would be effective. My rule was that in order to keep something, two out of three of the following questions had to get a “yes” when I considered each item:

1.) Have I used it recently?

2.) Do I really like it? and

3.) Do I really need it?

Certainly this was a very time-consuming and difficult process, but it was extremely worthwhile.

I’m in my new space now and feel less crowded, thank God. Basically I am sighing out all sorts of relief. I am finally living in much more simplicity than I was–in line with the modesty I’ve desired. I’ve been longing for this simplicity for years.

Nope, ironically, since college and my study abroad experience in South Africa (when much of my desire for simplicity began) all my possessions have multiplied. They once filled a medium-sized moving truck. Or, in the most recent case, all my stuff filled a bedroom, an office, two closets, and a sprawling storage area in a basement.

I am a woman who entered religious life eager to try to imitate the radical poverty and simplicity of Saints Francis and Clare. (And Jesus Christ himself!) Therefore, the magnitude of my stuff was, frankly, just embarrassing.

It feels good that pretty much all my things now fit comfortably in a room that is about 180 square feet. In a way, I feel as if I am actually living in a cell like my elder Sisters sometimes did. And, I love it!

Plus, with the loss of clutter around me physically, I’ve noticed drastically less clutter in my mind and, correspondingly, in my prayer life. I feel more centered, more grounded. This has done a lot for my human relationships too.

My desire for greater simplicity and smaller living isn’t only rooted in my admiration for Saints Francis and Clare and their radical way of living the Gospel. I have also been influenced by my admiration for contemporary movements and trends, such as the tiny house movement, the Catholic Worker movement, and even the simplicity of the small houses in the IKEA stores.

There was good reason for me to have less, to simplify. I realize that for most people in this world, space and material stuff is a total luxury, and I want to live in solidarity with them as much as possible. I also recognize that our landfills and incinerators are quickly filling. I want to be a better steward and tread a little more lightly on this precious Earth.

This was the type of simplicity I long for: the beauty of nature. “Above La Verna, Italy” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Now, a few weeks into living with less stuff, I can admit: It certainly was quite a process to lighten my living, but I am finding that it was totally worth it.

My life is simpler. I feel lighter. I have less stuff but I have more freedom and joy. I feel a sense of integrity. Most importantly, I feel closer to God.

Totally worth it.

growing through the cracks

I am thinking about cracks a lot lately.  Images of cracks keep flashing through me while I minister and live in community and try to live the Gospel and do this messy Jesus business. 

I see cracks in the sidewalks caused by the subtle shifting of the ground we know.  God is up to some amazing things and our life will not stay the same.

Sidewalk crack with green weed growing up
Image courtesy of http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/162795

   

I also imagine larger, bolder cracks from earthquake and destructive booms.  In my heart, I realize cracks inside of dark, hidden caves. 

I ponder the meaning of Christ as creator and how new things rise from destruction. I see the leaves slowly changing color, cracking from the branches and falling to the ground, fertilizing a new creation. 

I praise God for tombs of destruction cracking open to bring about great resurrections. 

And, God stretches me to more deeply accept my vocational callings.  My perspective and consciousness keeps shifting.  I am challenged to greater self-awareness and acceptance so I can be healthier and happier–fully alive with the goodness of God’s powerful love.  This means a lot of letting go and allowing the opening of my heart and mind.  As I gain greater self-awareness, my identity cracks and allows new things grow up and out of the rich soil of the God’s creation. 

I am limited, this is the reality of humanity.  My love and concern for injustice seems to keep expanding, but my love for the “wideness” of God’s universe, paradoxically invites me to acknowledge how I can only do so much. 

Sure, I am passionate about the injustices and oppression of marginalized, inner-city youth.  Yes, I am concerned about poverty and increasing non-violence skills in places where gun-fire is a daily struggle.  I was transformed and challenged by the past four years of my life, serving as an inner-city Catholic youth minister at high schools in Chicago. 

sister Julia Walsh with two high school students
I was privileged to minister with these two young men during my time in Chicago.

I loved it and hoped that I was called to work as an urban youth minister for a long time.  God, though, has created a world directed by the changing of seasons.  I was invited to let go of a ministry I loved and trusted, and moved to serve new people.  Now, I am serving youth who are much more like myself: mostly Catholic, white, middle-class and semi-rural.  I love my new ministry and am very healthy and happy in it.  I am so thankful, and amazed, as this is not something I ever imagined for myself.  God knows best. This is a much better fit and I am limited in what I can really do. 

A novel I am reading affirmed this emerging awareness.  The character is a woman who is struggling to accept her own vocation.  She writes:  “I began to accept the limitations of my life and the alteration of my aspirations, an acceptance that younger women consider weakness and surrender.  But, I found that the limitations I accepted, as youth and its dreams fell away, composed a narrow and secret passage leading to an expanse of space and liberation I had not realized existed.  I began to prefer peaceful surrender to nobel battle, for in peace is an internal freedom one never has in war, though sometimes warring is necessary for external freedom.  The disappointments were not bitter, because I was with a companion who did not turn his back on truth” (Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley).

The cracks in my life allow for new growth to spring forth.  I am so grateful that through it all, my companion is Christ, the Light of all Truth who creates all things anew. How awesome Jesus is! Amen!

oh hey, summer! well hello, stranger!

The last day of teaching was well over a week ago and since then I have been on the move.  My itinerant summer has begun.

Many people have asked me what I am up to this summer.  The truth is that my life is just as packed and full as it normally is.  I love it that way.

Here’s the plan:  I am taking a theology class here this week, working as a mentor for this program next week, helping out at my sister’s organic farm the following week, working as a camp counselor here for a couple weeks in July, preparing for the next school year and then going to World Youth Day in Spain right before the school year begins mid-August.   I am really excited about all these great things, I am very grateful to have these blessings.

As my adventures unfold, I quickly become overwhelmed with the privilege, freedom and blessings I live out of.

I am especially conscious right now of how I am afforded the freedom to have these adventures because I am an American citizen with a valid passport and a strong support system.  The circumstances of my life permit me to travel and serve freely without fear of persecution, arrest or deportation.  I am mindful of how many could never freely have the experiences I am allowed because they fear for their safety and freedom in a broken, global immigration system.

My summer kicked off on June 4.  That day, I joined my community in celebrating the first vows of Sister Amy at our Motherhouse in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  It was a beautiful liturgy and party and Amy was really glowing with the goodness of God.  What impressed most deeply upon my heart, however, was my pondering of one of the readings that Amy selected for her service:

But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. May the LORD do so and so to me, and more besides, if aught but death separates me from you!”  –Ruth 1:16-17

What a beautiful devotion to the mystery of Love! Plus, what a commitment to the journey of discipleship!  Highlighted in my prayer in my contemplation of the Ruth story this time was how applicable the wisdom is to our struggle for just, compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform.

We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of history.  Thank God the border between the Moabite Plateau and Bethlehem wasn’t guarded! Praise God that the ancestor of Jesus could cross freely, remain devoted to love and family, and then marry across ethnicity!  Wow, what if our society worked that way!?  If we heeded scripture, I suspect we’d welcome strangers then realize they are saints.

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, right now.  My heart aches because of the real injustices related to immigration.  Many days the sorrow meets me in my email inbox and I am compelled to advocate and learn more.

Last week, my community held our Chapter of Chats.  These meetings are rooted in the tradition that St. Francis and his friars had in the 1200’s to come together and hold a Chapter of Mats to discuss the happenings of their lives.  I helped with the sessions led by our Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation Committee, of which I am a member.  Our committee has been focusing our work on immigration reform for a while.  At the chapter, we viewed the powerful film The Visitor and discussed the great complexity of our broken immigration system. At another session, panelists spoke of how they personally have been impacted by the harm caused by the immigration laws.  As we gained awareness, we cried and prayed together that God would give us courage to act for change.

My concern with the topic of immigration extends beyond my work with JPIC.  As I state in this video, I am a daughter of immigrants.  I want all people to have same freedoms I have been blessed with.  Why should we be limited now?  Certainly, it seems necessary to have some order in our legalistic era, but I don’t think there is ever a justification for not treating people with dignity.

Although I have been concerned with immigration issues for a long time, it’s been more intense lately.  Last fall I visited an immigration deportation center in Chicago and it had a major impact on me.  I wrote about it here.  In 2008, the largest immigration raid in US history happened in Postville, Iowa just 10 miles from where I grew up.  Here is the story on NPR from last May, three years afterwards.   In July of that year, I attended a march and rally in Postville. It was amazing.

We were on the move that day.  We were moving with the Holy Spirit, like another Pentecost.  People of all races and tongues came from all over the nation to witness for the type of freedom we long and believe in: Christ’s freedom beyond borders, nations, languages, races, or places of origin.

As I move around this summer, I shall receive hospitality with joy and gratitude.  As we all move around, I pray that we can all welcome strangers and receive one another with the hospitality that Ruth- and Jesus- eventually found in Bethlehem.

Amen, Amen, may it be so!