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.]
No matter what the season, God helps me to find the beauty in the neighborhood in which I live.
Perhaps one of my biggest struggles as I develop my spiritual practices and prayer life is staying in the present moment. I find my attention wandering not only during prayer, but during meals and conversations with others. I can get quite busy and not notice what is going on around me. It’s easy to become distracted by technology and other interruptions. As I walk my pup Capoochino, I strive to treat the activity as an extension of my prayer. I attempt to quiet myself and notice all the beauty around me in the neighborhood, the changes in the foliage, the animals that scurry around. I try to take a lesson from my dog who is totally in the moment as we walk, delighting in the scents and smells.
Although it can take quite a bit more effort, it can also be important for me to notice and enjoy the “messy stuff” during our walks. I try to delight in some of the imperfections or oddities I see in nature. One of the pictures below was taken during an ice storm that occurred when we had hoped winter would be finally over. I was annoyed to have to go out in the messy weather to walk the dog. Yet, God showed me the beauty in the discomfort. Each thing I saw served as a reminder that God delights in the messiness of our lives while we change and grow.
Learning to remain in the present moment during my walks with Capoochino helps me to dedicate my day to God’s work; to put stresses into perspective and find those moments God was woven into my day.
Here are some of the images I’ve found myself awakened to during walks with Capoochino throughout the year:
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
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.)
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.
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.
“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.
The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.
It’s a stripping.
And, a great modeling of love.
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
The sisters and I are finished with eating our dinner, but remain seated at the table. I am sharing from a vulnerable place, telling a story about my struggles, growth and the challenge of being a healthy and balanced human. Then, our conversation is interrupted by a strange, loud squawking noise coming from the top of one of the tall pines on the nearby lakeshore. Together, we jump up from the table, a mix of curiosity and concern moving us outward.
The youngest and the quickest, I am the first to make my way to the end of the dock and turn my gaze upward to the treetops. There, I see two giant birds on neighboring branches. One is a mix of brown and white, a hawk; the other black and white with a golden beak, an eagle. The hawk is the one screaming, yelling at the eagle like a human toddler claiming its toy, its territory: “Mine! Mine!”
From my vantage point, the eagle seems to be staring at the other. Perhaps glaring. Possibly stubborn. Definitely quiet and bold. The deafening hawk continues screaming, unfazed by the humans crowding on the shore and staring upward at the spectacle. Eventually, the birds take flight, the eagle first going in one direction and then the hawk in the other. As they go, the only sound heard is… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.
Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.
I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.
Yet I started to have questions, questions that became… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
the ice drifted out
fish, otter, loons released
lake ripples broadly
overcomes brown building up
awoke, rising, bold
every budding leaf shows how
justice demands change
love is feeding others
love is breakfast on the beach
love is going out
the boat moves over
horizons, maps, mystery
the plain of blue water
the egg cracks open
baby robin sings a song
yes to this new life
love is giving
love. open. community.
love frees all to be
I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!
The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faith — such courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.
God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!
Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of spring — of beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormant — shows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.
Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle(published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:
There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.
Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate.
During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.
True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.
In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.
Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)
And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:
As if, although you have a history of friendly relationship with someone, they no longer recognize you as different from any other stranger in a crowd? That, even despite your efforts to greet them with love and reconcile the relationship, they chose to snub you and turn away?
Recently, I had this experience and it really hurt. I talked to some of my close companions about what happened and they encouraged me to not take it personally. Then, I prayed and pondered the love of God in light of what had happened.
My prayer led me to an insight: God, in a way, can relate to my experience of feeling ignored.
We rush around preoccupied with our agendas and desires while God dazzles us with beauty. How often does God reach out to us with amazing expressions of love that we totally ignore? We turn away when God is aiming to awe us; when God is ready to stun us into a moment of transcendence, praise and prayer.
God tries, over and over, to get our attention and dazzle us, so that we remain faithful in our habits of keeping God #1. God wants to be close to us. Yet, we turn away and ignore God’s love.
Fortunately, God’s love and patience is abundant! And, even when we are blind or miss a clue or just plainly ignore God’s beauty, God is OK with reaching out to us again, in another way.
God of amazing love, have mercy on us and help us to grow in relationship with you. As we pay attention to your wonders, may we lift our hearts in praise. You are awesome and your creation is beautiful. We want to be closer to you and we are grateful for your love. Amen!
This is an ecumenical and global day of prayer. World-wide, Christians are united in prayer for the healing of this sacred home and our Sister, Mother Earth. Out of love for her, we pray in hope and thanksgiving.
Here is one of the particular prayers we are praying:
A Christian prayer in union with creation By Pope Francis, Laudato Si
Father, we praise you with all your creatures. They came forth from your all-powerful hand; they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love. Praise be to you!
Son of God, Jesus, through you all things were made. You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother, you became part of this earth, and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.
Today you are alive in every creature in your risen glory. Praise be to you!
Holy Spirit, by your light you guide this world towards the Father’s love and accompany creation as it groans in travail. You also dwell in our hearts and you inspire us to do what is good. Praise be to you!
Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love, teach us to contemplate you in the beauty of the universe, for all things speak of you. Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.
God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love for all the creatures of this earth, for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live. The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. Praise be to you!
We pray in joy and wonder.
We pray in thanksgiving and praise of the beauty that God has made throughout the universe
We pray that we can be better stewards of the gifts that God has given us.
We pray that we will have the graces and courage to be in right relationship with all of creation.
May God help us all to integrate the important and challenging teachings contained within Laudato Siinto our daily lives.