Don’t blink

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”

I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.

I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.

Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.

Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.

And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.

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She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.

Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.

Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.

In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.

And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.

“You are stronger than you feel you are now.”

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

From stone to flesh

“Heart of Stone” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter’s snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.

Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don’t realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of…

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

In Its Time

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Eccl 3:11)

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Image courtesy of freeimages.com

I am sorry to disappoint everyone but this beautiful passage, spoken ages ago, passing the test of time to get here today, was written just for me. I am sure of it. For the past few years, I’ve been a student of journeys. I’ve walked with others, and I’ve certainly been on my own. You learn a few things when you’re the witness of some deep suffering and exalted joys.

1: You can often feel bipolar because huge climactic changes can happen in the flip of a switch. These moments cause you to reflect on the moment before and freeze that emotion, whether it was calm, peaceful and excited, or moody, dark, and anxious.

2: There is an immediate reactionary building period to those changes. It’s where you set your resolve, your personal priorities and rudimentary boundaries. This event might change you as a person and you want to make sure you have the inherent qualities you like about yourself.

3: In between those moments of change come big expansive times of anxious doubt (Why hasn’t anything good happened in a while? Am I chasing the wrong dream?) and envious comparison (Everyone seems to be happy and have their desires. Sigh).

4: Peppered in that anxious doubt are moments of excited clarity. I can feel something is about to happen, but what? How do I prepare for this?

5: And then BOOM another change, another moment, and you start the process all over again.

It’s exciting stuff, change. Life. And the older I get, the more I appreciate the unfolding of it. Six years ago I started my awareness of infertility. Three years ago I was suddenly notified of my impending divorce. Since then I’ve been focused on healthy healing and patient waiting with quiet, such quiet anxious hopes. It’s so hard to trust. It is. But I can firmly say that I have definitely tried my best at it. And wouldn’t you know? I’m getting married this Saturday.

Indeed, He has made everything beautiful, in its own time.

Imperfect follower

If you’re anything like most humans, even if you’re talented at something and called to do it for the good of the world, you were unlikely immediately amazing at it.

This is true for our faith life too. Following Jesus is, in a way, like a craft.  And this video reflection reminded me of that:

As far as discipleship goes, I am so far from being an expert. I am even further from mastery and perfection.

That’s why many of us who are religious speak about our prayer “practice” or ministry “practice” and so on. We realize we won’t start off with an expert status, and even a lifetime of this work will not perfect us.  We have to persevere and remember that we really are a work in progress.

I am just finishing an online class about the theology and practice of ministry.  The class has helped me feel assured that I am OK at the ministry of teaching after all. What makes me OK at it, apparently, is that I am open to learning and growing, can communicate well, and  am somewhat knowledgeable.  According to this book that we read in the class, those are the main charisms (gifts from the Holy Spirit) needed for teaching. This gives me hope!

I used to feel really insecure about how I lived my faith and how I ministered. I often felt like I would fall short, and I still frequently do. I know that I could always do better.

Recently my students were working on their contributions to the city-wide Compassion Project.  During our discussion about the components of compassion, I was reminded of something I need to keep in mind: I must be patient with myself as well as with others. We really do learn as we go, don’t we? This is one of the reason forgiveness is such an important part of our Christian life. Certainly our main motive guides us: we want to love as God loves. 

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6

Yes, I am learning. I think I get it now. I must be patient with myself and keep persevering. For I am in God hands. Evidently,  in order to becoming the loving woman who God made me to be,  it will take a while and this is quite OK. I just hope I can remember this most of the time. Even if I forget, the good news is that with God I’ll have some more chances to try again! 

Whew. What a relief! 

Photo credit: http://weltenmusterung.tumblr.com/)

Over-Blessed

By guest blogger Elizabeth Diedrich

It is 7 p.m. and there are two things on my mind: I am hungry and I need to use the bathroom.

Dinner service ended a half hour ago but one person has yet to leave. I wait at the back door, ready to finish my job, which involves making sure everyone has left and locking the door.

I spent two years volunteering full time at André House and now volunteer part time there. André House, a soup kitchen in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., provides basic-need services including a nightly soup line that averages 630 plates per night.

This gentleman is taking his time to finish his meal, pack his bags and move on. I have not seen him before and I try not to hurry people who are not causing a problem. The only thing in a hurry that evening was my own patience.

I tend to move fast and focus on to-do lists. He is taking his time and slowly appreciating each moment. I have no significant reason to rush him so I try to accept his pace.

He finishes his meal and slowly takes his tray up to the dishwasher. Returning to his seat he carefully packs his belongings, putting each item in its own place in his backpack. Then, carefully unrolling his bedroll and blanket, he proceeds to reroll them. Securing the bed roll to his backpack he stands up to stretch.

In my head I continue to tell myself to be patient and constantly repeat my to-do list: lock up building, turn off lights, eat dinner, study, clean, go through emails and write a paper. And this list goes on. Yet right now, all I can do is wait.

Then he walks over to the prayer table, taking a few moments to look over the books, pamphlets, rosaries and prayer box on it. He examines each item; reading the materials, rearranging them and observing the flowers and statues.

I remind myself that I have no vital reason to rush right now, but I am not good at waiting. Yet somehow, in the next moment, I begin to wonder: “How often do I check my email or Facebook page on my phone when I could just be still? How often do I fill time with business when I could stop and slow down, appreciate and look more closely at the things around me?”

The man picks up his bag and a book from the prayer table. Walking over to me, he asks if he could have the bible he found. “Of course,” I say, and tell him to have a safe evening. But still he does not leave. He tells me how lucky he is to have a bible. This bible is perfect for him: large print so he can see it under the street lamp at night. It has a soft cover so it is bends in his backpack and will not poke him.

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Photo by Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE)

Then he goes on to tell me about his blanket–a Mexican, woven blanket of many colors. It is light weight and easy to carry. He admires its multiple colors. It is tightly woven to keep him warm and also protect him from the ground. He talks slowly as he explains all the things he likes about his new-found bible and his over-used blanket.

Then he looks me straight in the eye and says, “What do I pray for if I am over-blessed?”

Here I am, impatiently waiting for him to leave so I can go home to my safe apartment, a hot dinner and my warm bed.

And here he is, over-blessed, going out to spend another night on the streets with nothing but a bible and a warm blanket.

Advent Stumblings

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson

I didn’t get it right. The new mass words have begun this Advent and I have often found myself stumbling and failing at it. I hate that, failing. The irrational part of me flairs up in a puff of anger at myself and others. I want to be “right,” and such simple failure touches a profoundly deeper disappointment at myself and others for a world so wrong.

As I sit in disappointment the seasons change and it has gently become winter. The crisp and refreshing air, the thick sweaters and coats, and the relief of shelter all bring a sense of peace to my struggle. I need the comfort of warm protection and a home to reside amidst the quickening darkness.

My need reminds me it is Advent. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” says the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. God is here to dwell and longs to dwell deeper admits our darkness. Jesus came to love, grow, and embrace our un-right selves and reality.

Advent candles

But such a coming is not un-situated; Jesus is not a Santa Claus of sorts that dwells outside of what makes the night dark. Amidst the cold systems that crush the many and uplift some, Jesus was born with the forgotten. His life was a constant struggle against the dehumanizing structures of his day and was powerful enough to be killed as a political criminal.

Such thoughts of Advent remind me of the old activist adage, “Be hard on structures, soft on people.” God desires to dwell with us and incarnate in us to affirm our human goodness. God births in us patiently as we love, care, and belong to one another.

This birth comes while we are positioned and contributing to the structures of sin, reminding us not to ignore our responsibility as if they were as natural as the weather or barns burning themselves down. God shoulders the weight of reality in our church, our government, and our economic systems as we struggle in them.

As we look towards Christmas, we remember Joseph and Mary searching for a home to give birth to our savior in.  Caught up in a system of mandatory forced migration for a census, they needed personal care and institutional justice.  In 2010 there were 30,978 homeless children in the city of Chicago.  They not only need care and shelter, but a state that does not cut funding and citizens who ignore it when it happens.  This is one issue among many we are invited to start caring about and use reason to truly move structures towards the good.

We are to have the faith that God is at it too, as St. Paul states on the third Sunday of Advent, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/3dmg/5273355807/