As one in the crowd

In my imagination, I am a girl of 10 years old, playing tag with my older brother. We are running through the stone streets of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. My calloused feet are well-accustomed to the alleyways and paths, to the steps and hills; I know my way around and am familiar to the rhythms inside these city walls. I know all the best hiding spots and my body is small; I have an advantage over my older brother and can easily jump out to tag him when he runs by.

Photo by Dan Gold, Unsplash

The crowds swarm through the streets, many people still lingering after yesterday’s Passover feast. They have sacrificed much to come pray near the wonder of the temple, I know, but its might and grandeur is ordinary for me. I see it every day. The pilgrims are in my way, they’re making it tough to watch for my brother. Hiding under a cart, I think a bit about this. I see another criminal in chains walk down the street, guided by guards most likely to his trial. Some rabbis walk in front, their faces scowling.

Something is strange about this man. Compared to others, he doesn’t seem to be wicked at all. He isn’t tense or yelling insults at anyone near by. He isn’t cursing the guards. He actually seems to be loving everyone around him, to be at prayer, to be in peace. He seems like he is peace.

I no longer feel interested in tricking my brother, of outsmarting him in our game. I am much more curious about this strange criminal. I decide I am done, and I will meet my brother at home later. I crawl out of my hiding spot and join the crowd, a group of adults who are walking with the strange man, looking gloomy. Some are crying, softly. I can tell from their accents that they are from out of town. Galileans, perhaps?

There is something unusual going on here. I feel drawn into the crowd that I was annoyed with moments ago. I begin to follow along, moving down the road. I tuck my body between the adults, trying to get a look at the man who seems so mysterious, so different. I catch a glimpse of his face and notice how brave he looks.

I wonder if this is the man I heard my mom and grandma murmuring about, Jesus the Galilean, who came to town the other day. People gathered in the street yelled out “Hosanna!” They cheered and waved palm branches. It was a bit of a counterprotest to Pilate who came into town from the other direction, on a big horse, horns announcing his arrival. At least I heard mom say something like that — she was so excited when she talked about it. My grandma laughed in my mom’s face. “Just another one thought to be the Messiah! Ha!”

The chains around his arms and ankles don’t seem to bothering this man now. “Who is he?” I ask a lady wearing blue, her face twisted with concern. She doesn’t really look at me, her gaze is fixed on him. “Jesus, from Nazareth,” she whispers. So it is the Galilean! Why is he in so much trouble now?

I’ve never attended a trial before. I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to enter along with the rest of the crowd. I think about this as I follow the people to the place where Pontius Pilate stays when he’s around. “He has to maintain the illusion of control …” I think how my dad mutters this every time Pilate comes into the city to meet with the rabbis and the troops. I don’t really know what Dad means. I do know, though, that I doubt they care about me or my family at all.

The man, Jesus, stands still. He isn’t grinning but he continues to seem content, as if he is fine with what’s going on. Pilate comes outside to the courtyard where we all are gathered. He looks bothered, like he’d rather be doing something else. He speaks with some of the rabbis — are they the chief priests from the temple? — who I can see now are angrily directing the guards.

“We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Christ, a king!” one of the rabbis says this loudly to Pilate, more like an announcement than a complaint.

Pilate turns to Jesus who still stands quietly, wearing his chains. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks him.

“You say so.” Jesus almost seems unworried as he says this, so calmly.

Pilate then speaks loudly to all of us. “I find this man not guilty,” he says.

One of the priests seems really upset. “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began, even to here!!”

“He’s a Galilean?” Pilate asks. I see that the people are nodding, muttering “yes.” I feel myself nodding too, for I knew the answer as well.

“Well then, take him to Herod! I heard he’s in town now too!” Pilate says.

The chief priests seem frustrated, but they apparently agree that this case falls under Herod’s judgement. They tell the guards to go bring Jesus to Herod, and all of us in the crowd follow along through the streets, past the market. We can’t go inside and see Herod along with Jesus, but I want to know what’s going to happen so I stay close; I wander through a nearby street.

For awhile I join some other children who are chasing birds. When a lady sees that I am admiring the cakes she’s baking over her fire, she offers me one. It is steamy and delicious, almost as good as my mom’s. I thank her with a big smile.

I didn’t wander too far away from Herod’s place, so I could hear the screams when Jesus reemerges. I run over and see that someone has forced some strange clothes upon Jesus. He now wears resplendent robes instead of his simple grubby clothes from before. He’s a little swollen and bloody too. Were they beating him? Some lady in the crowd looks really upset; she was probably the one who screamed. Herod was making fun of him! I doubt Jesus did anything to incite it. Why are people being so mean to him? I am upset too.

The guards begin pulling Jesus forward; the chief priests are close by. The whole crowd starts moving through the streets again. Where are we going now? Oh, back to Pilate’s place, it seems. Some of the people in the crowd are muttering. Are they planning something?

When we get back to Pilate, he stands next to Jesus and makes a big announcement, gesturing to the peaceful man as he speaks. “You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him. Nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.”

As soon as Pilate says this, the people begin to shout. “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!!” So this is what they were planning! They keep shouting it over and over. I am surprised that they’d want Barabbas instead of the gentle man, Jesus. I heard about Barabbas. He was leading all sorts of violent protests, trying to take over. He even killed some people! “Not a man to mess with!” My dad had said.

Pilate seems as confused as I am about their request. “Really? Well, if I do that, what do you want me to do with Jesus?” he asks the people around me.

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” the people all around me are shouting.

Pilate looks at Jesus. Jesus still stands tall, bravely accepting his fate. He pauses before he speaks again. “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore, I shall have him flogged and then release him.”

“Crucify him! Crucify him!” Everyone shouts this phrase over and over. The chant is catching. I am surprised to notice I am yelling the words too, even though I don’t really know what I am saying.

As we shout, I watch Pilate shrug his shoulders and talk to the guards. After a while, a gruff man –Barabbas? — appears among us, looking smug. The chief priests and guards lead the way, and the crowd moves through the streets again. As I follow along, I start to feel frightened. What are they going to do with Jesus?

When I realize that we are moving toward Golgotha I remember that Mom and Dad told me, their tones haunting — that I am not allowed to go there. I start to wonder if I have been away from my home long enough. I am starting to get hungry for lunch.

When I see that they are making Jesus carry a cross, I figure out they are going to kill him. My body clenches in horror. I feel scared and upset. I want to be close to my Mom. Jesus is so peaceful and brave. He seems so good and kind! Why do they want to kill him?

Without understanding, I turn toward home.

Photo by naaman frenkel, Unsplash

Groaning and gratitude

unsplash-zhang-kaiyv
Unsplash/Zhang-Kaiyv

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.

Honoring all the souls

It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.

Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.

After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.

To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.

Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.

That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For 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 15:51-55

Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.

On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.

During this sacred month of November,  may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.

Through each gesture and prayer,  I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.

Our God who Suffers

A few weeks ago, one of my cousins committed suicide.

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.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

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!

"moon over water" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“moon over water” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

oh, God

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.

loving to death

My holy week began in a simple rural church in Iowa. With crowds of farming families I chanted “crucify him, crucify him.”  My voice shook with shame.  It’s not pretend, it’s prayer.  Tears welled up within.  Why did the Church design it that I have to be the one who sentences my love to death?

Stone-cold statues of the stations of the cross lined the peaceful church.  In each, I see a face of Jesus etched with history and sorrow.  Jesus leans over an angel and looks at me in the pew, praying with questions.  Suffering is redemptive, I’ve learned.  Emotions stew within as I think of my love beaten, bruised, bloody, broken.

I sang “Hosanna” and held crisp, spring green branches but knew where the story was going next.  I knew about the cross, the death and the resurrection.  Except for the cooing children, I think we all did. Yet, we’re intense.  It’s ugly to face it: Love nailed to death.

As I gaze upon the cross this week, I shall consider all the hurt that I know.  I have been hurt and I have hurt others, at times I have even hurt myself.  The hurt of all humanity and creation stares back at me from the wood of the cross.

It’s personal and universal.  Personally, I have turned away from my love every time; I’ve allowed my good intentions to get clouded by pride, selfishness and lies.  Together, our social sins continually crush earth and community onto bloody boards.  The body of Christ is wounded.  We are that body.

Our eyes sting with the truth that love hurts.  I ache and I remember that the journey of the cross is the story that we live everyday. These are the moments of our community.  It’s not tidy at all, nor crisp with clarity.

The dust stirs on the statues. Chipped memories acknowledge that redemption began with the incarnation. He came to love, live, set free and therefore die. It’s because His love was so bold and non-violent that he was killed.  I am stuck in the story.

Hurt throbs through the questions.  Do I really understand?  Am I willing to die for what he lived?  Can I? Am I?