Openness to the mystery of other people

Photo by Łukasz Łada on Unsplash

Gazing toward the brightly lit horizon the other day, I noticed an expansiveness, an opening. Beyond what I could see was a mystery. Bigger than the dances of shadows and light, the frozen November snow and the clouds hanging out their hues of pink and gray, was the power of possibility, the rise of potential.

Looking at that sky, I thought of the formations of birds I saw flying across wide open skies a few days prior. I had traveled in a car from one Midwestern city to another with my attention cycling between the other Franciscan sister near me, the wonders on the other side of the chilled glass and the condition of my own body and mind. Even though the drive was nearly a week ago, I still wonder about it. I wonder where the birds had come from and where they were going. I wonder how long it takes for them to travel their distance. I wonder if they feel exhausted. I wonder if, for them, the sky feels big.

In each moment — in each expanse — I notice that I am open to the possibilities, that I don’t have a narrow view. My mind is not made up. I am open to learning or discovering. I am open to the largeness of mystery. I feel small, and in the smallness I feel a freedom, a gladness.

And, I can see that this disposition is different from how I relate to people, myself included.

The Gospel demands that we love God, ourselves and our neighbors with all that we are. The nature of love, I am learning, is allowing the space for the other to develop. To be a mystery. To be surprised. Love lets people change and grow.

Even though there are people I’ve known for years and years, I need to resist the temptation to assume they’ll react a certain way to anything I say or do. I need to let go of expectations that they’ll be in a mood I’ve encountered before or behave how they have in the past. Although every person is allowed to live a life made of patterns and habits, it’s not my duty to subject them to any traps or predictions. I’ve realized how much I hate it when others typecast me. Why would I ever do that to anyone else?

Similarly, I am trying to free myself from traps of thinking about myself. I am learning that a way to love myself is to allow space to grow and change. This is actually part of self-acceptance, of giving God a chance to work out conversions in my mind, heart and actions. So what that I have struggled to be kind, or gentle, or punctual, or tidy in the past? Perhaps I will be surprised with ease this one time.

I am thrilled to have learned a new way to love myself and others. I am excited to discover that a grace that companions love is the freedom to learn and grown.

And, I wonder what sort of beauty I will see if I allow myself to gaze upon the mystery of each person with the same sort of openness I see in the sky?

The familiar, the new and discernment for daily living

I’ve been wondering: is anything ever totally new? Some say that every seven years we have new bodies — all new cells. The saying, though, is a myth: brain cells aren’t replaced; we keep them our entire lifetimes. No matter what’s new, and no matter what’s familiar, when our world shifts and moves, how do we know what to do? How do we decide how to live, how to structure our lives?

This might be on my mind lately because I am living on familiar land, yet the landscape seems new. I am living near where I once felt very happy and at home: a neighborhood I like In Chicago. It’s a place where Lake Michigan breezes blow through and people are always on the move. Me, though: I moved away over seven years ago.

Now I’m back and I am glad. As I moved in, I unpacked boxes and situated my things in a new bedroom, while desires and daydreams floated through my mind, heart. I started to wonder: what structures and designs will allow me to be healthiest here? What sort of horarium will allow me to be the most happy and free? What level of intentionality and discipline is required of me, so I am fully alive–and also who God calls me to be?

I sorted through my possessions and imagined my new rhythms to my days, while the space took shape around me. I situated office supplies, books, and arranged my new bed, feeling the softness of a quilt made by my Iowan aunt between my fingers. The textures feel familiar, yet I felt a bit lost, unsure.

Although the neighborhood is familiar, I am seven years older. What I’m adapting to is a story of back and forth, of becoming new.

Photo by Rahul Jain on Unsplash

In the space of what’s new and what’s familiar, I must make some decisions. When it comes to decisions about what’s best for me — for any of us — I am growing to believe that we can’t guess, can’t try to figure it out. Life isn’t a puzzle or a problem to be solved. Rather, we get to follow a path and submit to the mystery. This is especially so for those who are dedicated to Christ and long to live the Gospel — for Franciscans like me.

The Paschal Mystery — the pattern of following and responding — shows me again and again that the call is to die, then know new life. Letting go of attachments and our ideas allows us to die to self. No longer clinging to things blocking me from God, our hands are freed to embrace the cross and our hearts our open to growth and holiness.

With all this in mind, I decide to stall on the task to come up with my plans, intentions and the design of my days. It didn’t take long for it to dawn on me that I need to enter into discernment before I can come up with a structure.

Discernment. The word that was much more popular in the past than now, an online search tells me. No matter that the word is less popular now than before, Pope Francis insists: “The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good.” (Gaudete et Exsultate #167)

When I first learned the word “discernment” I thought it meant something like, “holy deciding.” Actually, the origins of the word are related to distinguishing, differentiation. Nowadays discernment causes me to think of sorting and separation. I’ve learned that discernment is about seeing patterns in my life, in my thinking. I work to answer the questions: What pulls on my heart? What fills me with dread? What cause me to feel regret? Where do I discover joy and meaning? When do I feel most fully alive? When do I feel closest to God?

In order to discern how to structure my life in this new time–how to bring the new version of me to this familiar city–I must pay attention. I will only gain insight into what the Spirit invites of me if I notice the patterns, images and feelings in my dreams (day and night), in the silence pauses, and the communal beats. In the interweaving of the ordinary days and extraordinary moments I expect to discover what is needed of me. If I pay attention well, I hope to see how to fully love God, neighbor, and self.

There are many ways to pay attention that I are helpful, and in each one is a tool I need to unpack and apply to my new life. Spiritual journaling. A daily examen. Regular meetings with a spiritual director. Plus, regular solitude and silence are essential too. To tell you the truth, I am not sure I would tune into God stirring around the contents of my heart if I didn’t turn off the noise.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a big decision or something small and ordinary — like how to spend an hour of free time — good discernment builds up my discipleship and helps me keep focused on God’s will over my own.

Pope Francis says so too: Discernment is necessary not only at extraordinary times, when we need to resolve grave problems and make crucial decisions. It is a means of spiritual combat for helping us to follow the Lord more faithfully. We need it at all times, to help us recognize God’s timetable, lest we fail to heed the promptings of his grace and disregard his invitation to grow. Often discernment is exercised in small and apparently irrelevant things, since greatness of spirit is manifested in simple everyday realities. (Gaudete et Exsultate #169)

I’m seven years older and back to a familiar neighborhood, and now I’m discerning how to be, how to put together a new life ordered around God’s will. And as I do, I expect to discover God’s great spirit alive and active all over the place, in all sort of “simple everyday realities.”

Inside Mystery Cave

A lifelong friend and I are at the mouth of the cave, about to embark on a guided tour with a naturalist. Along with people we never met before, we’re entering Mystery Cave near Preston, Minnesota.

Before this moment several years ago, we had studied the history and geological displays in the nearby welcome center. I was in awe when I discovered the cave expanded for miles, stretching underneath farm fields through the limestone landscape. Without the signs, maps and indicators elsewhere, I never would have known about the expansiveness hidden away beneath the surface of Earth.

It is the same with humans: Much of what is hidden below the surface is often unknown, unmarked.

I am not surprised to feel the chill of dampness upon my skin once we cross the threshold, as we make our way forward into the dark. What I am surprised by, however, is how the space feels like a cathedral. A sanctuary. The giant stalagmites and stalactites seem like the pillars ascending and descending I’d find in church.

I want to fall to my knees, to reverence what feels holy, real. I am amused that…   [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Old Mystery Cave sign. Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/55239532902204369/?lp=true

Alive in the fire

In the stretch of some days, we switched over from Resurrection joy and fiery feasts to ordinary time. (At least, according to the Church calendar that guides my contemplation.)

Holiness, light goodness, hope, love, transformation: all these energies are offered to us on this side of linear thinking and time. Yet, the God we know and love is bigger than the limits of our human understanding. This love invites us into a mystery that remakes us each moment, through each breath.

The Psalm (104) says: When you send forth your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the Earth.

The Spirit is being sent upon us constantly. Over and over we are created. Again and again, the face of the earth is renewed. The nature of the Spirit doing all of this is fire, wind and the flight of doves. It’s forceful, fierce, and moving. Not still and rarely subtle.

Yet, we are stalled by our lack of faith; by our fear of the Spirit’s fire and force, it seems.

Our faith in God’s power is corroded and corrupted by the world’s lies, by matters that are unGospel: security, strength and an obsession to protect our things. This is the trouble I encountered in a quick conversation with a man before worship on Sunday. As I aimed to prepare my heart for Pentecost Mass, I heard a suggestion that I ought to carry a weapon when I go to the margins of society, into the corners where street violence is a regular thing.

Such suggestions are due to the stalling to truly change our ways and steward the sacred gift of life and Earth we’ve been givenas named by the prophetic and powerful voice found in Greta Thunberg.

If we truly allowed the Spirit to change usto create uswe would be burned by the fire, I believe. We would wear the scars of our transformation, just as the Risen Jesus and Body of Christ bears the scars of our salvation. Our flesh wounds would influence how we carry our bodies around each day. Feeling the impact of our faith in the Spirit’s power would mean we’d really believe in the Gospel:

“Lay down your life.” (John 15:13)

“Put down the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

“Love your enemies …” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Take nothing …” (Luke 9:3)

“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

For as Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49).

I am convinced, dear friends, that in these evolving (and yet ordinary) times we must trust and pray and have strong faith in the Spiritwith the possibility alive that good faith is the stuff of orthopraxy, not so much orthodoxy. For like the Spirit, our faith is shown through movement and bold acts.

If we are totally alive in the Fire, we will be formed by a type of freedom that makes us wild and brave. We’ll be weapon-free peacemakers fiercely giving our lives and acting boldly as instruments of true hope.

Let us do this, Church! Let’s act as instruments of the Fire, for as Greta Thunberg has said, it is through our actions that change is made: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Amen!

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

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

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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.]