The Holy Mountain

Last summer my partner and I spent a month in Ireland. Below is a reflection I wrote after climbing Croagh Patrick, an ancient pilgrimage site where St. Patrick was said to have fasted for 40 days in the 5th century.

Up the holy mountain. Following a stream of stones and prayers into the mist. The fern-green embrace holds my pilgrimage. With each step it becomes clear that this mountain has known me from the beginning of time. It cradles the infinite. It holds in its heart specks of stars and primordial clay. It vibrates with the energy of the cosmos.  

hikers, mountain
Visitors at the foot of the Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick (image courtesy croagh-patrick.com)

The final ascent is terrifying. An almost vertical climb on slate slippery stones. My heart drives blood through my body, into my shaky knees, through my ears. I hear its deep, booming pulse. It feels good to stretch, to breath, to move, to burn.  

At last the slope begins to curve toward the summit and I see his bed, adorned with rosaries from around the world. A space held sacred for a millennium.

Nearby, the tiny mountain church, where I had hoped to take shelter from the cold and rain, is locked. For a while, I stand under a church eave eating a banana. I get ready to leave and walk around the building.

As I turn the corner, three old Irish men are standing at the church door. One of them has a key. (His daughter was married at the church last year and the priest forgot to ask for the key back.) He flings the doors open. I ask if I can join, and the four of us walk in.

It’s warm and dark and safe in the church. A statue of Patrick stands behind the tabernacle next to Christ on the cross. The fellas walk past the kneelers, up to the simple altar.

They ask me to take their picture with the Saint and the Son of God. I do. Then one them takes out a flask and four small metal cups. He pours the whiskey into the cups on the altar.  

He looks to his friends, Boys, this one’s for Damien.

He slides me a glass, Fer the photographer.  

We throw back the whiskey. The warm spreads down my cold body. They ask if I want another. They say if I have a couple more, I could fly down the mountain.

I thank God that the Church, in that moment, was stripped down to what it was meant to be. A place for ordinary people to share life, to create sacrament, to claim as our own. I thank God for the sanctity of complete strangers. I thank God for the Eucharist in a shot of whiskey on the Holy Mountain.

mountain, sheep
Croagh Patrick (image courtesy croagh-patrick.com)

About the Rabble Rouser:

Joe Kruse

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

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.]

I Walked into Suffering on the Road to Santiago

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”

The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.

For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.

The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that…  [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Pilgrims going into Santiago
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Redefining faith on El Camino

Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?

Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.

And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.

But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.

I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…

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

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

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

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

St. Francis Day Photos

Worldwide Franciscans like me are celebrating the founder of our order today. On the eve of this day, in 1226 St. Francis of Assisi died and went to heaven. Last night we celebrated the Transits to memorialize this sacred story.

Today we remember and honor St. Francis’ story and contributions to the Church. Through his witness 800 years ago, we have all be transformed and inspired.

In his honor and in celebration of this happy day, I wanted to share some St. Francis of Assisi photos from my pilgrimage to Italy in 2014.

Assisi from the valley. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi from the valley. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi City of Peace. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi City of Peace. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis goes to meet the Pope at St. John Latern Archbasilica, Rome. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis at St. John Latern Archbasilica, Rome. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Canticle of the Creatures. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Canticle of the Creatures. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rebuilding the Church
Rebuilding the Church. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis meets the leper. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis meets the leper. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Children of God. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Children of God. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the birds. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (1). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (1). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis and the Peace doves (2). Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis caring for the little ones. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
St. Francis caring for the little ones. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Happy St. Francis Day everyone!!!

A Visit to The Simple Way

Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage-of-sorts to The Simple Way, a Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia described as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.”

Like many thousands of Christian millenials, I have been interested in The Simple Way community ever since I first devoured this book about eight years ago.

 

In The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne describes an inspiring type of Christian living: a dedicated, communal, prayerful, life of radical simplicity and activism inflamed and inspired by the Gospel.

Some time after first reading his book I remember writing Shane Claiborne a letter thanking him for his work and sharing with him how it impacted me. At the time I was new to my Franciscan community and feeling confused while I discerned commitment. I was starting to become aware of the community’s shadow sides as my idealized sense of who we are waned away. I felt uncertain whether staying with my Franciscan community would free to me to live the way I felt called to live. Plus, I was struggling with generational challenges and the impact of joining a group with a long history. Honestly, I was tempted to leave religious life and instead join a movement with the freshness and ecumenical energy like The Simple Way community that Shane describes in his book.

I must have written my thoughts all out in my letter to Shane because I still remain thankful for the gift of his response as his encouragement to be Franciscan ultimately contributed to my decision to stay with FSPA (and propelled me toward my perpetual profession of vows five weeks ago!). Here is an excerpt from the letter I still treasure and pray with:

“I admire your hope and your discontentment–and certainly the Church needs both—it is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders … Our communities and ‘new monasticism’ has its charm and fresh charism but it also has this challenge and vulnerabilities … I certainly will keep you in my prayers as you continue the work of Francis and Clare and ‘repairing the ruins of the Church.’  You are a gift to the FSPA …”

Since that first correspondence, I have remained a fan and follower of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. I have heard Shane speak in person a couple of times and I continue to be inspired and influenced by his writing and passion for being a neighbor and disciple of Jesus. I have tried to keep up with all the happenings in The Simple Way, but never before made it there for a visit.

So when a wedding brought me to Philadelphia at the end of June, I reached out to The Simple Way community to see if I could stop by. I didn’t expect to actually see or spend any time with Shane (he’s kind-of famous) but I was really interested in the current state of The Simple Way and how God was working with and through their presence in the Kensington neighborhood.

I was so excited when I found The Simple Way in Philadelphia! I really felt like I was arriving on Holy Ground, a place of faith and wonder.

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

There, I was hosted by Caz Tod-Pearson (the director of the organization) who had recently returned from maternity leave.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

She and I had a deep conversation about The Simple Way story. She told me about the ups and downs of community life and the ways that she is working hard to help the community stay rooted and find a healthy focus.

As Caz explained in an email to me prior to my visit:

Right now we do not have an intentional community house, or a large amount of service projects, or programs going on as we have in the past (as the stories in the book written 10 years ago speak of).

Over the past year and a half we’ve gone through some major transition, and taken a lot of logs off our fire, that had got pretty saturated, to get the flame burning again. So what happens here on a weekly basis is pretty small and simple, and has begun to look a little different as indigenous neighbors take on more leadership and volunteer roles in the work that had been done by our residents. We’ve had to say no to a lot of good people wanting to come in and help as we’ve listened and made way for neighborhood leaders to take ownership for what our neighbors need and want.

We do still have a couple of families and friends who’ve relocated intentionally, are living and working alongside us, and are sharing life in simple ways. We do still have some rhythms of prayer, shared meals and work, but to a different degree than before. We really have stripped everything back and are ‘starting again’ in a way. It’s been a difficult, yet beautiful season that we know the Spirit will continue to guide us through.”

I love the simple beauty of the main common room where we had our conversation.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Caz spoke about how fame and fire impacted The Simple Way community. In 2006 The Irresistible Revolution and The Simple Way community was put into the national spotlight. During that time Krista Tippet interviewed Shane on Speaking of Faith (now On Being). Then, on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed several properties in Kensington, including the house where Shane was living.

The effect of these two events occurring so close together was an explosion of financial support, organization, projects, collaborations, associations, press and visitors. The initial grass-roots, intentional-community flavor of The Simple Way shifted some. It is still an intentional community, but it’s not of the same type as when it was founded. The Simple Way has essentially remained in a state of discernment and transition since 2007, while still serving the neighborhood and being faithful to the Gospel.

Here is the lot that remains empty since the fire.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

The Simple Way is now committed to being a loving presence in Kensington, building relationships of mutuality and establishing sustainability.

And in a place hurting from poverty and its impacts, they offer tremendous beauty and love to the neighborhood by cleaning up spaces and sponsoring artists who paint murals.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

They also have a few garden projects.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

What I encountered during my visit to The Simple Way was inspiring and exciting for God clearly is actively influencing the life of community. What was especially fascinating, though, were the indicators that the members of this new form of religious life are dealing with similar questions as those of us who are newer to Catholic religious life. In different corners of the country, living different forms of religious life, we all seem to be riding the same wind that the Spirit is blowing throughout God’s people who are eager to build God’s reign of peace and justice.

Just like the peers of my generation in Catholic sisterhood, The Simple Way is grappling with questions of identity and call and how to respond to the signs of these times. They are trying to discern who God needs them to be now, as they stay open to the Spirit’s work and revere the legacy of their founders. They are trying to establish relationships of mutuality with those on the margins of society and build bridges across lines of culture, class and creed (and I have also heard some of my Catholic Worker friends of my generation express the same sort of desires).

Clearly, God is up to many great things through Shane and Caz and their friends and neighbors, who are working hard to help Christ’s peace and love be known in our hurting and troubled world. Thanks be to God for how they offer themselves as true instruments of peace. Let us pray for them and support them in all the ways we are able.

They—like many other Christian millenials—are challenged by the Spirit and the signs of these times. We desire to help God’s peace and justice be known by all people, in every broken place of the world.

No matter what type of Christian community we belong to and whether we are joining a new movement of the Spirit or a 800-year-old tradition, all of us are eager to build deep relationships of mutuality and strong communities. Together we are on this journey of building hope and proclaiming peace. So, let’s pray, discern and follow the Spirit together, now matter how messy, mysterious or confusing doing God’s good work may be! AMEN!

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

As the insects, like the swans: Living the vow of obedience with a free spirit

I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.

I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.

Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…

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

Heaven and Earth: Lessons learned in Assisi

This past summer I had a profound experience that helped me to remember that heaven and earth are one.

I was in Assisi, Italy, on pilgrimage. I was there with other Franciscans who were preparing for (or discerning) final vows, and participating in a study pilgrimage sponsored by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs. As a Franciscan sister, it is understandable that my heaven-on-earth experience occurred in Assisi, as the village is holy ground for those of us in the Franciscan family.

Sacramental graces

After a morning Mass with our pilgrimage group at the tomb of St. Francis, I went into the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis.  I then found myself praying with Giotto di Bondone’s vibrant frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Much was stirring in my heart as I examined the scenes depicting St. Francis’ life of conversion and penance.

Specifically, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my weak and imperfect …

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

 

4 photos from Assisi

I have been back from Assisi for a few weeks now, after spending over two weeks on pilgrimage there. The effects of the experience are still sinking in. Slowly, I am coming to know what the after-effects of my Assisi experience actually are.

It has occurred to me, though, that certain images and experiences linger more loudly, causing my Assisi memories to stay very alive, even though my life here has built layers on top in my mind.

It’s very difficult to really articulate what I experienced, so bear with me. I hope that the photography I’ve chosen helps.

1.) The art within the Basilicas

Photography inside the Basilicas of Assisi is not allowed, so I can’t share actual images with you. I’ll just say that seeing the originals of art that I have studied and prayed with since my entrance into FSPA was truly awesome. It was a thrill for me to pray with the actual San Damiano crossthe larger-than-life and vibrant frescoes by Giotto in St Francis’ Basilica, and the beautiful, simple Porziuncola where Francis lived with many of the early brothers. Somehow, the art in each of these sacred spaces caused me to encounter Christ in a way unlike I have before. I felt connected to Francis and Clare, to centuries of pilgrims, to the shared tradition of prayer.

This image of Francis is on the outside wall, above the door into the lower basilica of St. Francis.

"The Francis who greets" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
The Francis who greets by Julia Walsh, FSPA

2.) The valley below Assisi

Apparently, during the time of Francis and Clare the Spoleto Valley was a marshy land where few people would venture. It contained leper colonies where members of Francis and Clare’s communities would serve. One hot and sunny afternoon, I tried to walk across the valley from the place where Francis lived with the early brothers (the Porziuncola) to where Clare lived with early poor ladies (the Chapel of San Damiano). Even though I got overheated and never made it to San Damiano that day, I was in awe about how the land felt somewhat familiar. Perhaps my Iowan roots help me to feel comfortable in any agricultural setting. Or, perhaps praying with the stories of Francis and Clare during the past few years allowed me to feel at home.

I took this picture when I was walking through the valley.

"Assisi and the field" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi and the field by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

3.) The dancing colors across the sky

Nearly every day I was able to take in the magnificent sunrise and sunsets over Assisi. The scenes were like bookends of the blessed days. In between the sun coming up and going down I would encounter the way that this small town of peace offered hospitality to people of all types; to all sorts of colorful characters from all over the world. Some of us were tuned into the Spirit and sacredness. Others were joyful about what was quaint and calm. No matter where we are all of us, whether we believe it or not, are God’s children sharing space under the beautiful sky.

This is from the sunset the first night I was in Assisi.

"the wonder of color" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The wonder of color by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

 4.) The joy of being Franciscan

I mentioned it earlier, but I am happy to say it again. In the land of St. Francis, I felt very joyful and like my truest self. I would randomly sing hymns and find myself muttering prayers, more than normal. I am so thankful that God has blessed me with this vocation and made me part of this wonderful Franciscan family. Now that I am home again with many more sisters from my community, I understand why so many eyes sparkle with deep gratitude when the talk shifts to our Franciscan roots. I suspect that my eyes do that too. I hope we help others know God’s goodness through our joy.

In this picture, one of my pilgrimage companions lifts up his arms in Assisi.

"joy in the journey" photo by julia Walsh, FSPA
Joy in the journey by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Thanks be to God for the way that this pilgrimage continues to enrich my life! Pace è Bene!