Looking forward

I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.

I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.

I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.

Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.

I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…

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

Photo by Sandra Wattad on Unsplash

Explanations are not easy

colors-stars-night-sky
Image by Greg Rakozy, unsplash.com

In the book “A Wrinkle in Time,” Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tells the children, “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

Last weekend, the global community of Christian writers quaked in shock as we absorbed the news that the influential author Rachel Held Evans, 37, had died. I didn’t know her but I admired her from afar and have had her four books on my “hope to read soon” pile for some time. The grief is heavy and hard.

And then, this week’s school shooting in Colorado took another young saint, Kendrick Ray Castillo, away from us much too soon. I’m horrified and heartbroken that school shootings are so common in the United States that we are nearly numb to the news. God have mercy on us for the wrongs that we accept. It’s awful that we allow young lives to end without alarm. It’s more than shameful.

Meanwhile, my friends in Cameroon try to survive horrific violence. Weather patterns, habitats, landscapes and populations are shifting. After being attacked in sanctuaries — places of worship — human bodies are bloodied and hurting. People are running for their lives. Families are being torn apart. Children are going hungry. Our loved ones are sick, some die way too soon. And, it’s hard to know what’s happening to democracy … but it doesn’t seem good either. The litany of heartbreak could be much longer; this is only a little list of what is making me feel so sad.

I turn to God and pray “WHY?” As I do, I often find myself remembering Mrs. Whatsit’s words. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

If often seems to me that everything is in flux around us, and the transition doesn’t feel good. I’m confident that much of the turmoil, loss and pain is a result of rapid change and our inability to adjust, allow and accept how newness is emerging, even when we don’t feel ready. The shifts are hard and we feel lost in it all, so we grasp for what we can control: our convictions and tribal tendencies. Some cling to the cross, while others cling to their guns. We look around for like-minded folks who can reinforce our opinions and ideas but, as we end up in warring camps, this isn’t helpful either. God help us.

As we bicker and brawl, let us not lose sight of the paradox of Christian discipleship: God asks for our trust and hope, while we each play our small, merciful part.

Yet we wonder why. It’s only natural for us to have many questions, to hunger for explanations when we’re disturbed by the chaos and turmoil and how quickly the world is changing. When everything from our values to our comfort zones seems to be up for grabs, we pray over and over. “WHY?!”

“Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”

I am reminded over and over that I must resist the temptation to keep God in a neat and tidy box. I must not make God into an image I like, I must get to know God and allow myself to be made into God’s image and likeness. I must avoid trying to subject my suggestions to the Creator of the universe, upon the Keeper of mystery. I must remember that I am only a small human who has no idea what the big picture is, who can’t even guess how the mystery might unfold. It’s not my job to know what God is up to.

My job is to remain faithful to the Gospel, to the insistence from Jesus that we build communities based on mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. Each day I need to show up and do my part. I need to love the people that God puts in my path, live simply, serve joyfully and pray deeply. I need to broaden my awareness and deepen my contemplation. And through these acts, I hope that I am helping to build up what’s meant to be and tearing down what’s corrupt and destructive.

I have to trust that God is in control. I have to trust that God is with us in the heartache and pain of chaos and confusion. I have to trust that God’s taking care of the big picture. I have to listen to the Spirit and allow God to make all things new.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. — Isaiah 43:19

Maybe, when it comes to being a faithful Christian, it’s not our job to understand. Rather, we get to keep showing up ready to love and lean on each other. It’s the only way I know how to move forward into the mystery, the only way I know how to get through the pain. With all of you.

Belief in the risen body of Christ (but what is belief?)

Happy Easter!! He is risen! Alleluia!!

It’s not exactly an Easter song (it’s the Canticle of Zachariah from Luke 1), but it has been in my head since Sunday morning.

Maybe because it’s a joyful tune. Or possibly because of the promise of peace and justice. Anyway, it’s super fun and I love it!

Alleluia!

God knows, with all the heartache that remains — especially after the terrorism in Sri Lanka — that we ought to cling to our hope for peace and justice. Hope, peace and justice are Easter promises for us to celebrate.

The body of Christ has risen from the grave! This mystery, beyond what our minds can comprehend, is amazing and exciting. Joyful music is fitting for the Easter season. Alleluia!

The body of Christ has risen from the grave! We are that body. We are risen and sent out to go be Christ’s hands of healing and compassion, to offer God’s peaceful presence. This is the Easter mission for all of us. I believe this with all my heart, and this is the conviction that motivates me to serve and share — to live the Gospel no matter the cost or struggle.

The body of Christ has risen from the grave! This is a core belief of our Christian faith. Jesus Christ’s resurrected body walked and talked, ate and drank among his friends and followers even after he was killed. Nothing can destroy the goodness of God, the power of Jesus Christ. Now the doors of death are open to all of us, and we are liberated and free to join him for all eternity. This is what we believe. This is what we proclaim. This is the faith of our Church. And it is true, Good News!

The body of Christ has risen from the grave! Yes, it’s what I believe and proclaim. But, when I am honest, I can admit I don’t know what it means to believe. I am not sure what it means to be a woman directed by my faith, really.

Does the belief put a certitude in my mind? Certainly not.

Does the belief put a confidence in my steps? Some days, but not usually.

Is the belief a warm, comfortable feeling that clears out doubts and struggle? Rarely. Practically never, actually.

So, what’s a woman like me to do? A woman who is a mixture of hope and heartache, belief and doubt, joy and confusion? How am I supposed to embrace the mysteries, the wonders and love of God’s goodness, even if I am not always feeling sure and all together?

Here’s what I am learning: belief is a matter of the heart, not the mind.

God’s word offers me insight, something I am leaning on:

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. – Romans 10:10

Only recently did I learn this Bible verse. And when I did, I felt invited, compelled: I need to get out of my head. I need to listen to my heart, not my mind. My brain has been taught to be critical, cynical. I have a tendency to overthink, to overanalyze. This is not faith — it’s thinking.

Discipleship of Jesus, being Christ’s body, invites me to tune into my heart, not my brain. In my heart, I know that Jesus lives, that Jesus Christ has risen! In my heart I feel God close and present, compassionate and directing me onward. It is in my heart that I learn to love like Jesus, to be present to others who are suffering and act as an agent of peace. Alleluia!

This is the Easter mission, this is who we all are called to be: people with their hearts burning, as we walk along, not understanding, on the way. Like the first disciples, those who were on the road to Emmaus, I might catch a clue later, after I walk faithfully a little more.

Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Luke 24: 31-32

This is what belief is to me: faithfully walking forward tuned into God’s mystery, tuned into my heart, burning with love. Alleluia!

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

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.

An invitation

As we walk along, feet stir dust
and crack tiny twigs—once members
of a great tree they now lie as individuals
dismissed, forgotten.

The brightness of once-was is waning
as green fades into yellow and the decay
of vibrancy is apparent in the log, the stump,
the browning ferns drooping toward the ground.
The world is shifting in every direction.

An invitation opens on each side of the moment,
under the crunches of freshly decaying leaves,
in the whispers of opportunity.
Coming from beyond,
there is a chance for new unfolding.

What disturbances are broadening your knowing?
Toward what tunnel or cave are you being summoned?
What depth and darkness might you need to explore
in order to then walk more freely into new color,
into a brighter light?

The mystery summons you, needs you.
You are invited to be part of what is becoming.
Walk on.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Praying with the power of paradox

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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…

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

Death in Spring: two Holy Week meditations

Death encounters

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.

Later that day, I learned that two of my sisters had died.

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.

Credit: FreeImages.com

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:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

— 1 Corinthians 15:53-55

Credit: FreeImages.com

Have a holy and happy Triduum and Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!  

May the beautiful mysteries of death and life be close,

and fill you with faith and hope. 

Credit: FreeImages.com

Redefining faith on El Camino

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…

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

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Holy Week is here

Here we are!

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:

 

photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

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:

Bethany

(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.

 

 

“water into wonder” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Upside Down

(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

“look up to the cross” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

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.

 

Trains in heaven: Embracing the mystery

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…

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

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