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?
As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students:why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?
I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?
The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”
“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”
The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”
I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher mode — I was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.
I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.
My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which way — if anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed something — I couldn’t see what he could.
It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.
But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?
Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day — my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances — become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.
My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:
Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
I am gripping ski poles through fleece-lined mittens, my feet secured to cross-country skis. My arms and legs slide back and forth, propelling me forward along the trail.
I have only been in these woods on this bright Saturday morning for about 10 minutes, but my warm breath is already fogging up my thick glasses. The snow is slightly crusty and slick, so each motion makes a crunching sound in the otherwise quiet woods.
This is only my second time venturing out onto this trail this winter, but this time I feel more awkward than before. I first fell as I tried to secure the skis to the boots, and I have been slipping all over the trail since. Yes, I enjoy skiing, but by no means am I …
There’s the classic clip-art picture of children representative of every race, nation and language joined together and singing songs of world peace. And then, many of us are familiar with rainbow buttons proclaiming cheery slogans like “Celebrate Diversity” and “Better Together.”
More importantly, there’s the vision that God’s reign of peace and justice will be known in every corner of humanity, an image that we really believe in, that we pray about and dedicate our lives to. We believe it is to come and is also right now:
God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.
– Revelations 21:3-4
We each have a role, a part to play, in the building up this reign of God. Like Paul says, we all are…
During a recent volunteer stint at the local drop-in center for people who are homeless, I overheard a conversation between two of the guests. A man gestured toward me and said, “Don’t talk like that here, especially with her around — she’s a nun.” I don’t know what they were talking about or what words they were using, but I noticed the woman he was talking to squirm in disbelief and embarrassment.
She turned to check me out, to see if he was telling the truth. I introduced myself and explained that yes, I am a sister, but that they shouldn’t worry or try to be any different around me. I asked her to be herself and said I would be myself too. I said that I am an ordinary person who just lives a different type of lifestyle. After commenting on my simple outfit of leggings and a sundress, she relaxed and said…
Recently I had a conversation with another sister. During the chat, we realized we had a common experience on our different retreats earlier this summer.
We had each gone to opposite corners of the country and were looking forward to some sacred one-on-one time with God. He found a way to sneak in–to surprise and enlighten both of us.
My friend shared an account of how she had gone to a chapel, hoping to pray in silence in order to spend time with the One Who Loves her (and loves everyone, for that matter), only to be distracted by all the people and the happenings inside: chatting, rosaries prayed aloud, and fussy cleaning and tidying.
Then I told her about my retreat: to a busy lake over the 4th of July weekend, where I foolishly hoped for some solitude and silence in nature. I kept trying to find quiet corners in God’s creation. Instead, I became a little irritated by the noise of speedboats, jet skis and people whooping and hollering as they had fun.
The other sister said she eventually calmed and realized she was actually in an appropriate space to savor God’s presence. God was totally present in the people distracting her silent prayer in the chapel. She felt a sense that God was there, loving each of them. In this awareness she was overcome, suddenly, with a deep sense of joy and gratitude because she felt connected to God’s love for her and everyone else in the room.
My transformation happened gradually. Eventually I realized my attitude had shifted, though. All the people screaming in joy and speeding along on boats began to seem precious to me. I realized I felt happy for them as they had a great time. And, in one sacred and fleeting moment, I felt totally in touch with how God loves each and everyone one of them just for who they are.
Both my friend and I had certain hopes about how our prayer time would go. We had gone into contemplation seeking union with God and anticipating a certain outcome and experience.
Instead, we experienced little conversions and learned great lessons from God about love. One of the most awesome ways to be in union with God is to love others as God loves them.
Being Christian is not for sissies, I have heard some say. We must be bold, courageous and purposely enter into experiences of encounter that might make the average person squirm.
For starters, this is a life of serious love. And for us Christians, love is a verb, not a feeling. We have to love our enemies, not just our friends, even when it might not feel good or make sense. This love is done through countercultural actions: we have to forgive, stand up for justice, help the poor and marginalized.
All this love-in-action activity totally changes us for the better. Conversion gets the best of us. Our minds, hearts and behaviors change. For doing this love-work means we must hang out with prisoners, the people who scare us, the smelly— and we might become poor, scary, imprisoned and smelly ourselves in the process.
This being a Christian-thing: it’s messy, it’s complicated and totally challenging.
God really is demanding; God does ask a lot. We must give over our whole life and become totally transformed, and unite with God in our hearts, minds and spirits. For sure, this discipleship is an all-or-nothing thing. No pretending, going through motions, or half-assing any sort of faith-life; at least not if we want to really please God and build God’s reign of peace and justice.
Yes, like the verse in Revelation says, we must not be lukewarm with our faith.
I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
When we’re real with ourselves, though, we might be able to admit that we don’t always feel on fire for the Gospel and the love of Jesus. Sometimes we are just not in the mood to go to great lengths to care for others. And, other times we are full of doubts, confusion. We are hurting, exhausted and just plain weary.
So, if we’re feeling lukewarm and we don’t want God to spit us out, then what are we to do?
It’s important to understand the original context of the passage; it was written to encourage persecuted Christians to remain faithful and hopeful during the Roman Empire. Many Christians were hiding their faith or trying to participate in both the state religion as well as their Christian communities, in the same way that today some of us still participate in the sins of the common culture while still going to Church saying we’re a Christian. This is the type of lukewarm faith that doesn’t care, that is comfortable and not interested in growth or feeling passion for God and others.
But, what if we are lukewarm because we’re struggling? What can we do if we don’t feel hot for God like we want?
Here’s how to be hot for God:
Surround yourself with strong, faithful Christians who you can lean on for support. Recently one of my young nun friends posted a meme that totally summed this up for me. There was a picture of a bunch of ladies in wacky clothes and a statement: “surround yourself with people on the same mission as you.”
Study scripture and pray a lot. Ask God for a strong faith, for strength and keep in mind that faith is a gift, but faithfulness is required in all relationships. And, a life of faith is a life in relationship.
Do frequent acts of service because a great way to get to know God is by getting close to poverty.
Receive the sacraments and allow the graces of God to transform you from the inside out.
Listen and stay open to God’s beauty and love surrounding you all the time, whether it is nature, in art, your own acts of creativity or in the people you love.
Ask others to pray for you such as my community. By the way, we have a perpetual adoration chapel and are praying 24/7 and we love praying for all of you and all your requests! You can submit your prayer requests here.
Indeed, let us pray for each other, that all of us can burn brightly with our love for God! Amen!
A lot of interesting things are happening in the movements for change in our society. Videos are going viral, the Occupy movement continues, we’ve experienced an Arab Spring, and our nation is divided so much about issues (like wealth, poverty, war, abortion, contraception and sexuality) that I’m beginning to wonder if the two-party political system is failing.
General global consciousness is awakening. More people seem to be concerned and talking about social problems and issues of morality than I can remember happening in the past. Naturally when we start discussing the things of right and wrong, we begin talking about God and religion. Our true human nature drives us to desire justice. For Christians like me we learn what real justice is by looking to Jesus.
Many of the debates are very heated because there’s a lot of passion surrounding the topics people are concerned about. The topics of contraception, abortion, the treatment of the poor, the rights of women and human rights in general are pretty big deals. Tension and chaos are getting us uptight. The debate can be overwhelming, confusing and complicated. Are there easy answers? Can there be?
About the viral video this week- all about children soldiers in Uganda- (Kony 2012) the CEO of Invisible Children made an important statement about the video’s popularity: “The core message is just to show that there are few times where problems are black and white. There’s lots of complicated stuff in the world, but Joseph Kony and what he’s doing is black and white,” –Ben Keesey
I think it’s true that the global, human family is hungry for some simple black and white morality. We want some things to be cut and dry. Ah, it’s a beautiful day! Wow, the sun is shining! How wonderful, I can see clearly now! When things seem clear, we feel refreshed.
The thing is, helping things be better means that we can’t stay cozy. Our thinking doesn’t always stay clear when we let ourselves really get into it all. Actually, to really effect change we need to turn toward the darkness. We need to face the ugly, awful truth that people are suffering and sin is destructive. We need to learn the facts. We need to do social analysis and learn different perspectives. We must be willing to get into the cracks of civilization where it’s complicated and uncomfortable. We often play a part in the systems of violence without knowing it. It’s haunting and humbling to know that we are part of a human family who is- in part- quite awful. Facing the despair is Messy Jesus Business and it’s the stuff of the season of Lent.
Alas, we learn about the ugly and the awful but we don’t stall in it so long that we become infected with depression. We become motivated to work hard because we want a better world.
We desire to see the Kingdom of God and really know peace on earth. We want change. We want things to be fair for everyone and we want to preserve rights and freedom. We believe that all people matter. The power of the Kony 2012 video- and its cries for action- is that it is organized and direct. We are made to believe that we can create change and are shown how.
We can join our diverse human family and build a kindom of equality, peace and justice – a real Easter message. Thank God, we’re on our way. We know that Jesus shall rise and Love and Life shall conquer death and evil. This great arrival of God’s glory is something we want to get really ready for. We’re trying to get ready for this joy we’ll know when justice reigns. We’re fasting, praying, giving alms, serving and living in solidarity with those who suffer. Or, we’re trying our best to do the Lenten actions and accepting the fact that we keep falling a bit short.
So our Lenten work continues and we keep gaining awareness. Our personal conversions create cultural conversions, and together we’re truly working for change. As we reside in the challenging space of the Lenten desert where things are ugly and true, we all are getting ready to experience the fullness of God’s goodness. For that we shall be grateful and for that we shall keep trying. As we do this work, we remain aware that God is with us, no matter how ugly the world may be.
I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace. Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.
Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him. Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.
My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.
How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire. We are awestruck out of our element there. It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown. I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am. But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life. Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being. Waking life requires it.
Wearing gloves severely inhibits fine motor skills. As I fumbled to extricate my Chicago Transit Authority card from my wallet and insert it into the vending machine at the Granville El Station I heard: “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” The mechanized announcement suddenly instilled in me a sense of urgency despite the fact that I was leaving hours before what was necessary to reach my destination on time.
Carefully and quickly separating softened single bills into the machine—please don’t reject these ragged edges—I heard the rough voice of a woman calling out from behind me, “Hey Loyola!” She was addressing a stout young man with a trim dark beard wearing a bulky Carhartt jacket who was hustling over to the machine neighboring mine. She didn’t ask for money, only recognition from someone she knew.
My mind told me to reach into my pocket and give her a business card indicating the days and hours the community I live with opens our house for showers and meals and visiting. Should I? “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” I could hear the rumbling of the approaching train. My finger pressed “Vend.” My body turned. My legs jogged up the steps. Without having consciously made a decision, I conceded to habit over responding to desire. I thought I wanted to catch that train, forgetting I wasn’t in a rush. Wants, skimming the surface of our consciousness, are far easier to capture than the desires that swim our depths. I never even saw what she looked like.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ones we overlook. The thought has followed me around, applying itself to observations and conversations and readings. It interrupted me the other night while reading Arundhati Roy’s captivating novel, The God of Small Things. She writes of an encounter between “Touchable” police, and an “Untouchable” man suspected of a crime. The suspect, Velutha, is sleeping. He is awakened by a brutal beating.
If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him (293).
They didn’t recognize him. And as cozy as it would be for me to read this and mourn the injustice of caste-based cruelty in India, the ability to overlook our fellow creatures is not confined to any one people or region. It is not a faraway problem. It is close at hand.
Awareness of this welled up a few nights ago as I listened to my roommate read an account of a shooting that had happened in a nearby neighborhood. Three were killed, two shot. One victim was killed by a police officer who was himself injured. One victim was the officer. Information about why these shootings happened, who was involved, how the community is affected were absent. Details about the officer’s history with the force, about the noise and commotion on the scene, crowd out consideration of the human loss. There is no grieving. No asking why it happened, how it might have been prevented.
Why? Perhaps I am jumping to unfair conclusions, but my guess is this: the people who died were not people who mattered. We didn’t recognize them. For two of the men this is quite literally true, at the time of the report, they had not been identified.
As Christians we are called to see Christ in each other. But long before Godself was manifested in the body of Jesus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.” This is following instructions to set the oppressed free, share bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into your house, cloth the naked. It is followed by a prompting to “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” and a promise that when we do these things, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desires…” Embedded in my mind is that idea that those hungry, afflicted, naked that we are called to attend to are our own flesh, and the unabashed insight that unless instructed otherwise we will be inclined to hide ourselves from them, from our own flesh.
We have heard Jesus’ word, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Can it also be said, in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Whatever you do…you do unto yourself.”? If this is true, we are truly a masochistic culture. We are trained into the habit of self-forgetting. It is common, not only to lock the homeless out of our house, but to drive them from the parks. It is acceptable not only to keep our bread for ourselves but also to prohibit the hungry from foraging in dumpsters for food we have already thrown away. It is known that not only are the oppressed imprisoned but they are tortured and maligned. I have spent a lifetime developing habits of avoidance, averting my eyes from looks of recognition with acquaintances, not to mention the stranger on the street, and ignoring systemic issues that seem too big or too confusing to become involved. I have developed a habit of hiding myself from my own flesh. Breaking such a habit requires tremendous intentionality and practice. Fortunately, prophets continue to live and teach another way, individuals and groups; people who are ordinary, and radical.
To be continued…
This week’s guest blogger, Amy Nee, grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Experiments with truth have steadily brought her North, through Kentucky, to Chicago where she is currently living and loving at the White Rose Catholic Worker. Her musings are piling up here: amytheshow.blogspot.com. Together, Amy and Sister Julia like to cook, pray, study non-violence, write, garden and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.