I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.
I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.
I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.
The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…
On the first day of Spring, I awoke to a voicemail from a friend, her voice cracking with emotion as she said that her mother had unexpectedly died. Please pray for us, Sister.
The rest of that day, I attended a funeral for someone else, for the husband of a friend of my living community. The sons of our friend stood near the altar and wept as they remembered their father. Their father’s body lie silently in a casket in the middle of the Church, while a new Spring light streamed in.
On the second day of Spring, I stood in front of a group of 8th graders at a local parish and discussed the events of Holy Week. How did Jesus die? I asked the youth, pointing to a clue: the crucifix.
On the third day of Spring, I took a walk during sunset and tried not to slip on the ice so I wouldn’t be alone in the woods and injured. Or worse.
On the fourth day of Spring, I drove down a highway, snowbanks slowly melting in the ditches. At 65 miles an hour, I caught sight of a horrid image: a ragged deer carcass, frozen stiff, twisted and statued upright by a chunk of ice. Parts of its flesh and bone were exposed, likely picked at by hungry animals.
On the fifth day of Spring, I bemoaned the fact that I live in a nation where death by gun violence is common. I carried a sign and marched among hundreds, demanding change so that no pupil in any classroom would ever die.
On the sixth day of Spring, Palm Sunday, I meditated and reflected on the Gospel story of the passion, the story of Jesus accepting his gruesome death on a cross.
On the seventh day of Spring, I attended a wake for Sister Bernyne. I touched her cold corpse inside the casket and prayed, asking her to help me, to keep helping our community. Before going to sleep that night, I watched a documentary about death and mortality. I was riveted by the beauty and vulnerability of the art and truth; I was in awe of the mystery and wisdom.
On the eighth day of Spring, I heard “the end is coming soon … any day now,” about another friend who is in hospice care, who is keeping vigil next to the door of death.
Spring has started, but death is staring me down, it’s around every corner. There’s no denying that death and dying are part of life.
In the Garden
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. — Luke 22:41-42, 44
He’s agonizing, face pressed close to the earth as he prays, I imagine. Knees crusted with gravel and dust.
He knows he must die and it will be brutal. He knows that new life can only emerge for him, for his followers, if he accepts suffering — if he accepts the true cost of love: self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
As he goes through his head and heart and tries to find another way, trees and shrubs shelter him. But he knows he’s always known — there is no other way. He must die for there to be new life, for the fullness of life to be.
The moonlight illumines the garden. He stares at the exposed roots of a nearby tree, he studies ants crawling on the bark. He examines seeds cracked and littering the ground surrounding him, mixed in with dust and gravel. He remembers what he said, what he told his friends about the kernel of wheat.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” — (John 12:24)
He understands he must be like the wheat. Or nothing he has told them will bear any fruit. He must be like the snow that elsewhere melts away, to expose new life. Dying and self-sacrifice for the sake of the community. That’s the paradox of life. That’s the paradox of every Spring.
He doesn’t want to accept the truth, but he knows me must. He doesn’t want to cause any hurt or pain. He knows his friends, his followers will be heartbroken, disturbed, confused — that things must become worse before they become better. As he talks to his father about all this, he is praying so intensely he becomes soaked with sweat.
He loves — the deepest affection ever felt by any human. And this love is for every human soul who has ever existed, including those who will live in two millennia. For you.
He sobs, his shoulders and chest shaking for the depth of it, for the love and sorrow and truth and pain. Now his cloak is soaked with both sweat and tears. He sees that blood is dripping from his face — his eyes? — and coloring his garment as well. He sobs and sobs and prays and prays all through the night, disappointed with his friends sleeping nearby.
At dawn, the sunlight cracks through the darkness, colors paint the horizon. He gains courage to embrace the cross, to show us all how to embrace the mystery and promise of death.
He goes through the political and religious trial. He is tortured, he his whipped, and nailed to two cross beams. He cries out from the cross before he breathes his last breath.
And through it all, deep underneath, behind all the torment, a slight smirk colors his thoughts. A small laugh. Death won’t win. It won’t have the last word. In three-days time he will arise. He’ll show them how death leads to new life!
That which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:
Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?
Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.
And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.
But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.
I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…
The Lenten journey is ending and it is time to emerge from the desert and enter into the Paschal mystery.
Holy Week has arrived! Here’s a quick background on these sacred days in the Church year:
For your prayer and mediation this week, I’d like to share with you a couple of poems written by a fellow Franciscan and my friend, Br. David Hirt:
(For Monday of Holy Week)
You came into our life on feet
like dusty heartbeats, beating bare,
your human heart out-pouring love
and life for one whom even death
itself could not keep back from you.
And I have nothing worth your gift;
incomp’rable, to place into
your hands but my most costly thing;
a poor excuse compared with All.
This earthen vessel, feminine,
I break before your dusty feet
and pour its oil, perfumed and rich,
to cleanse the dust from calloused toes
and wipe them, intimate, with hair
that just a spouse should see and fear
I intimate your death. This gift,
this chrism meant for you alone
lifts up its heady scent and fills
this house like prayer, confirming dust
with sanctity and all because
you came into my life on feet
like dusty heartbeats beating bare.
(A Poem for Holy Thursday)
And everything is upside down,
like faces mirrored in a bowl:
an earthen vessel, roughly formed,
that’s full of water while the one
who once was robed, incomp’rable,
in light removes his outer robe
to tie a tow’l, a servant’s garb,
around his waist and stoops to wash
his foll’wer’s feet of traces from
the dusty Roman roads they’ve walked.
Yes everything is upside down
for whom in all this world would like
to think that him whose praise we sang,
“Hosanna to King David’s son,”
should stoop to take a servant’s part.
Oh we would rather he should reign
on high with us at his right hand.
But Servant Lord, incomp’rable,
you call us to remove our pride,
an outer robe, and stoop to wash
all others’ feet: humility,
and thrust down deep our dusty feet —
to take the love you offer us —
into the bowl reflecting you.
Read the rest of Friar David’s poems for Holy Week here.
Holy One, Open me to your mystery during these sacred days. Change me and renew me, so I may enter into the Easter season prepared to celebrate and proclaim your Good News with my life. Amen.
About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…
I’ve never had any training in hospital chaplaincy, and I know little about medicine. Like many people, I feel awkward and uncomfortable around suffering. I prefer what I know how to manage, like the classroom where I teach. But when an acquaintance’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, was in a serious bike accident, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing to go and sit with her and her family.
My response to Elizabeth’s need wasn’t measured or thought-out. Rather, it seemed to gush from a natural space in my heart. I found that I could not…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for U.S. Catholic. Continue reading here.]
This week at Sunday Mass I had a full-body prayer experience that transcended the ordinary.
I am Catholic. Full-body prayer is nothing unusual; it’s basic Catholic functioning. Stand, sing, sit, listen, sing, listen, speak, kneel, stand, shake hands, sing, walk, eat, drink, kneel, sit and stand. Through the rhythm of movements, our hands, feet, mouths and throats embody the mysteries of our Incarnational faith. Even as we sing, speak and breathe, the core of our bodies vibrate with words of love and hope.
This past Sunday, though, my body tuned into a communal woundedness. It was as if, in a way, I could feel in my bones an echo of the laceration that had been inflicted upon my brothers and sisters during the massacre in Orlando a week prior.
Certainly the mass shooting that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 was a complex atrocity. The narratives of our nation’s political battles are…
The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice. No barriers divide us, no division separates us. God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.
Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong. We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits. With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred. If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.
In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature. Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive. Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests. Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.
We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding. It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore? How can we believe and trust? How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?
Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through. In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.
I try to trust, despite the struggle. I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed. A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice. He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered. “No, it’s not!” I said.
Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain. Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK. I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.
Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends. The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.