I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I’ve been told that I’ll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.
Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I’d reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren’t for the swollen flesh holding me together.
I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can’t sleep. I can’t relax. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this dark, lonely night.
But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it’s the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
This is the beginning of my latest column for “National Catholic Reporter’s” “Global Sisters Report.” Read more of “Groaning and gratitude” here.
I spent part of last night cleaning and peeling a recently harvested pile of wormy rutabagas with another sister. We probably ended up having to compost at least half of what had been pulled up from the soil, because some sort of creatures had created little homes in the vegetables. The waste was certainly disappointing and unfortunate but mostly it all felt very natural — like a healthy part of giving seeds to the earth, tending the soil and then pulling forth food many months later.
Afterwards I noticed that my hands smelled earthy, much like the crispy leaves and the chilly autumn dampness that has arrived in the air.
With such sights and smells in my consciousness, I began to think about all the death and decay surrounding us in the midst of this autumn season. And, the natural ebb and flow of life, of struggle.
It is inevitable, isn’t it? Being human means we have downs, we suffer, we feel anguish. We deal with the weight of despair. No matter how much we try to avoid the cross, reality teaches us that the muck of change is inevitable. Under the weight, our moods and attitudes can falter; we can get stuck in lament. How, then, are we to remain available to lovingly, joyfully serve others? How can we continue to act with kindness when wallowing in despair seems like all we are capable of?
A few months ago, I read this blog post by Sarah Bessey about finding time, energy and inspiration to write. Since then I have been thinking about tip #5 on the list: “Fill the Well.” As she wrote it: What brings you alive? What clears your mind? What fills your soul? Do those things instead of the other things. Take time to figure it out – your list will be different than mine. Write down a few things that you can turn towards to fill the well. You can’t write from an empty well and so whenever you can, fill your well.
Here’s what I am learning: we must not only fill our wells to serve and witness, we must tend to our wells. Each of us has a God-given, wide-open space; the vessel that contains the life-giving water, the container that holds the elements for our strength. We must know this part of ourselves and know what is really needed so that our wells maintain their shape and abilities. How is your well constructed? Is it chipping and weak in a certain space? How deep is it? What elements of Spirit flow through this space inside of you? How does your well nourish you and provide hope?
What sort of songs must you sing to tend to this sacred space in you? Which Scripture passages will fill you with the strength you need to persevere, to continue serving?
No matter how death and decay may threaten to endanger us, let us remember that God is with us, eager to tend to our wells and fill us with great grace and strength. After all, God has conquered death and is ready every minute to make all things new! Amen.
God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging.
– Psalm 46:2-4
We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.
We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.
We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…
Every ordinary day, I am reminded that I am weak and desperately need God.
When I forget the birthday of someone dear to me, when I lose my keys, when irritation and anger bubble up in my heart–each experience of imperfection can block my trust in God.
I am tempted to think I am worthless and ought to stop trying. In times like these, this song speaks to me.
I want to avoid admitting my brokenness. I would rather freeze and stop turning to God. Yet, I know that only God can provide the freedom and hope I need. Here is a tune to inspire faith and freewill.
I know I am a sinner. I can be cruel and selfish. Ugly thoughts and actions clog up the loving in my life. I feel dirty and worthless. Here is a song for trials like these.
Sometimes my faith doesn’t feel deep. I get it in my heart that God has the ability to work great miracles, to free me from troubles in the most dramatic of ways. Yet, my head doubts that will happen. This song helps keep hope alive.
I am constantly on a journey of conversion and transformation, as God brings me through these challenges. This tune helps me remember that God is with me in my lows and the awesome highs of life.
In the end, God’s embrace is the greatest place of peace I know. I am so restless, and God is the only source of rest and strength.
Thanks be to God for the comfort we all can know, for the music that will help us make our way through the beautiful mess of the human experience.
Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.
I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.
Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.
In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…
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.]
Today, this high holy day, at liturgies worldwide, we will know no sacrifice at the banquet table.
Communion will be different, stirring up spiritual hungers to remind us of the pain of our loss, the awfulness of the absence of Christ. On this solemn day, an unusual ritual will file us forward; all of us are all called to reverence the cross.
For me, reverencing the cross is really a ritual of bizarre paradox. All at once, we grieve the death of our beloved Jesus and give thanks for the freedom his death has permitted us. We meditate on his wounds, the lashes, the whip cracks and the cries of anguish and celebrate his non-violent love so freely expressed. And, we kneel in awe and wonder and cry with an awareness that our sin caused his pain.
Ultimately, in the midst of paradox, this is the day for us to acknowledge our sins, simple and complex, which have created crosses for others. We ignored an opportunity to learn about an overwhelming social issue and enter into solidarity when we turned off the bad news. We became part of the crowd that yelled, “CRUCIFY.”
We wrongly decided to put our recyclable waste in the bin headed straight for the landfill. We cut wounds right into God’s creation.
We let selfishness consume us and ignored our coworkers in need of God’s mercy. We handed them a crown of thorns.
We didn’t learn to love our hurting, peaceful, Muslim neighbors and reacted to the news of another terrorist attack with cruel assumptions and accusations. We decided we didn’t want to love our enemies. We pounded them with nails of violence and judgment.
We gave into materialism and wasted our wealth on superficial pleasure, cheating on our fasting. A spear of greed pierced our side.
We are part of the picture of Jesus crucified. Rightfully, our hearts are sad and dark on this day.
Let us unite with Jesus on the cross, for his drops of blood reveal our sinful ways.
It was a shock to all of us who knew and loved him. His death still remains sad and painful for many of us. Personally, the experience of suffering with my family taught me much about the power of God’s love.
In a new way I now understand: no matter how hard or heavy an experience of suffering, God is stronger than the pain. God who is Love and Light is not overcome by any darkness.
This past weekend at mass, I was reminded of the lessons I learned about love and light through my cousin’s death. I remembered how my family amazed me by the ways we united and showed up and showed love to one another in all the ways we knew how.
Yesterday’s scripture readings speak about this part of our Christian faith. Jesus reaches out to those who suffer and Jesus suffers with us when we suffer.
God became a person as Jesus. He entered into a particular time and place in history which was full of intense suffering. Then, Jesus who was fully God even suffered during his life and in his death. As yesterday’s scripture said, God amazingly heals the brokenhearted. Jesus tended to the sick and the suffering, including people of all types in the healing.
This is our story. We are Gospel people. People who suffer and enter into the suffering of others. We live the Gospel by exposing ourselves to the suffering of others and allowing their pain to be part of our story.
In fact, the Gospel Truth is that “the birth of Love …came to guide us and lure us toward beauty and hope and justice. It didn’t overcome [suffering] with it’s own sense of fear.” (I recently listened to a podcast that said this.) In this Truth there’s another important dynamic. Our story of suffering is God’s story of suffering.
Our culture is clogged with noise that can distract us away from the ways that our Gospel living ought to compel us to be uncomfortable and enter into suffering. Instead of avoiding suffering like advertisements tell us to, those of us who are Gospel people try to move toward it.
How do we move toward suffering? Through action and prayer. We happily hang out with people who are homeless and see what they can teach us about Truth. We advocate for the closing of unjust prisons and for reform to laws that cause more harm than good. Or as I find myself doing a lot lately, we pray with and care for those who weep because they have known sudden death. All this Gospel activity is mercy-making in the mess.
Surrounded by it and challenged by it, we are reminded of important truths of this Gospel of Love. Suffering is a mystery that can’t be avoided. Our Christian life is tough and challenging on purpose. The Paschal mystery insists that Easter Sundays must be followed by Good Fridays.
When we suffer, God also suffers. Somehow, by suffering we can come to know God.
At my cousin’s funeral, the hugs from my relatives were all a little longer and harder than they normally are. Our shoulders were all a little damp as we cried together. For me, these physical expressions of Love were a bit of light in the darkness. Simple human acts help me experience the closeness of our amazing, suffering God. God who is a light stronger than any darkness or pain. Alleluia! Amen!
Our lives are made of Advent stories. As advent people, pain and sorrow erupt right with joy and elation.
A couple of days ago, I had a real Advent experience.
I know a darling preschooler who I believe is a modern child saint. She teaches her stuffed animals how to pray the sign of the cross and she loves talking to her younger siblings about God. I love her and her parents a lot, as they are some of my dearest friends from college. The other day I heard from the three-and-a-half year old’s mother and learned that this dear little girl has been diagnosed with leukemia. The message was a request for prayers, as she must now go through chemotherapy for the next two-and-a-half years. (Please join us in prayers for miracles.) The awful news sunk my heart to a near-collapse.
While I was the middle of emailing a prayer request for the little girl and her family to my community’s adoration chapel coordinator, my phone rang. It was my dad. He was calling to tell me that my younger sister had her highly anticipated baby and I am now an aunt! After I squealed and shed a few tears of joy, I added another line to my email before I sent it. “In thanksgiving for the birth of my nephew!”
My prayer request was a combination of sorrow and elation. Together, my email was a cry for help and a message of praise and thanksgiving.
In a matter of minutes my heart experienced the extremes of our chaotic, human experience. In each of our lives, the beauty and joy coincides with the awful and ugly every day.
Thousands of years ago, God’s people were exiled and had forgotten their promise to be faithful to the covenant. They started repenting and saying they were sorry for breaking God’s great law of love. Then a great voice came forward and told them to change out of their penitential clothes and get all dressed up. It was time, he said, to show that they were children of God, made out of beauty and love. Sure, they had messed up, but there were reasons to rejoice and have hope.
Here’s what the prophet said:
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship. Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones. For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God. The forests and every fragrant kind of tree have overshadowed Israel at God’s command; for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company. -Baruch 5:1-9
Our God has created a mysterious, paradoxical world. Our human ways are messy and ugly, yet beautiful and glorious. It’s in nature: if we examine a swamp we can see life coming out of the mud. If we go to our gardens, we can notice how the decay of our compost waste renews and restores new life.
We can also look at the impacts of our human actions. If we go to our war-zones we can see art rising from the destruction. We can also see how the songs of symphonies are sometimes created from slums of our trash. The stories in this movie make that very literal:
It’s true and just like all of us! Despite our garbage, we get to be instruments of God and make music to sparkle out God’s glory. Even if all the darkness is too heavy or we feel like we are just ugly waste, God can create us into something new. We don’t really know what that will be. Let’s stay open while we wait.
Instruments can only make good music if they are empty and open. As instruments of God, joyful songs of hope and beauty can ring through our empty, broken sorrowing souls. God makes the music, we need to be ready to do the work.
These are real Advent stories that teach us about an Advent way of being. In our world of pain and darkness, the Light of Christ is glowing bright. We are children of that Light! We get to act like our parent, and help the Light illumine the darkness. Daily we get to say yes to helping beauty be right along side the dirt of our pain and sorrow.
It’s such good news! We get to trust and have hope, by God’s grace our ugly stories and feelings can become songs of beauty and light! Amen! Happy Advent!
The solid statues seem to suggest that the horror of the cross is only historical. We gather in dark churches to remember, and mix the meaning into our mind right along side wars, genocide, crusades and the holocaust. Black and white photos in the history books tell us to keep telling the story and memorialize the dead.
This cross, though, is different from those other events. Although it’s historical, it’s also eternal. Every day we are wounded, nailed, bled, broken, bruised. We’re doing it to ourselves and each other. It happened before, and it’s happening today. The pain we acknowledge today is as real now as it was then.
Maybe our praying with the cross today matters to our brothers and sisters of history after all. Maybe this cross is broad and bigger than our mixed up human minds can fathom. Maybe it can heal the wounds of history and change all humanity.