Holiness is messy: “Gaudete et Exsultate” highlights

On Sunday, I stood in a Church parking lot with about a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation. I held a pile of paper plates under my arm, a black marker in my hand. The youth all stood behind a line, listening to me as I described their task: moving as a team to another line many feet away. The challenge was my version of the team building game, Stepping Stones.

Source: FreeImages.com

“That line, over there, represents the Kingdom of God that you are called to build up. Right now you are in Church on that side of the line, but you must move outward, as a Christian community. You will venture out into a world where the focus is often not on the things of God, where you are often pressured to be someone you are not called to be, someone who is selfish and greedy and mean. Instead, you must be a community and work together and not fall into temptations. (If anyone in your group touches the swamp of sin, then you all must start over.)

“All you have are these stepping-stones, representing the Christian practices that keep you strong, faithful and focused on Christ. If you let go of any of these practices (if you are not touching the stone as you move forward) then you cannot use the stepping-stone; the hungry sharks (your confirmation sponsors standing over there, watching on the sideline right now) will snatch them up.

“In order for you to have these stepping-stones available to you, I need to hear you name a Christian attitude or action that will enable you to have strength, to build up God’s kingdom and remain on the path of holiness. What do you say?”

The teens started to name typical Christian behaviors. I wrote each one on a plate and handed the plates to them one at a time, so they could use them as stepping-stones to help them move to the other line.

“Go to Church.”

“Pray.”

“Be nice to people.”

“Forgive.”

“Read the Bible.”

“Good, good. What else? You have more plates here that could become stones if you say more things that Christians do.”

What was said then totally surprised me, even though it was absolutely right.

“Have joy.”

Source: FreeImages.com

The next day, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” was published; it means “Rejoice and be glad!” As I read the exhortation, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about the teens who are about to get confirmed and our discussions during the retreat. It was very clear that they already understood the universal call to holiness; now my prayer for them is that they will boldly follow that call, no matter how messy Gospel living may be.

I hope we all do.

What follows are a few highlights from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” sorted into categories I made in order to highlight how moving on the path of holiness and living with joy is often messy, challenging work. As we live this way, let us rejoice!

ORDINARY HOLINESS

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14)

“That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” (#20)

EVEN SAINTS MESS UP

“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (#22)

“May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.” (#24)

GOD IS IN THE MESSY PLACES

“Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” (#42)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.” (#75)

A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.” (#76)

HOLINESS CAN REQUIRE MAKING A MESS

Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25).” (#90)

HOLINESS IS ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED, GETTING UNCOMFORTABLE

“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (#98)

For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease. Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough. The bishops of Canada made this clear when they noted, for example, that the biblical understanding of the jubilee year was about more than simply performing certain good works. It also meant seeking social change: ‘For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.'” (#99)

Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” (#101)

“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves. We will find it hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need, unless we are able to cultivate a certain simplicity of life, resisting the feverish demands of a consumer society, which leave us impoverished and unsatisfied, anxious to have it all now. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters. Yet even amid this whirlwind of activity, the Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life.” (#108)

“Such inner strength makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good. It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God (pístis) can also be faithful to others (pistós). They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction.” (#112)

“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’” (#120)

“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite. His compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation. Let us acknowledge our weakness, but allow Jesus to lay hold of it and send us too on mission. We are weak, yet we hold a treasure that can enlarge us and make those who receive it better and happier. Boldness and apostolic courage are an essential part of mission.” (#131)

God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.” (#135)

HOLINESS MEANS ENTERING INTO THE MESSINESS OF GROWTH

“Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.” (#134)

Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil. Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for ‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents … Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.'” (#163)

“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everything be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (#172)

When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off-limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment.” (#175)

Be perfect

Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?

Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker. The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!”  Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”

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Image courtesy of everydayfeminism.com

My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?

It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.

Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.

Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).”  The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.

I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.

“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”

How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.

No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.

“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”

~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).

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Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.

The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.

Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.

So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.

In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”

You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.

If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).

Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.

Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.

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, his adorable daughter and his 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.

More good news related to being messy

 

Ever since the birth of this blog nearly six years ago each discovery of Christian content elsewhere—stuff that also emulates the tone Messy Jesus Business aims to assert—has been a little thrill for me.

And by “tone Messy Jesus Business aims to assert” I mean that in this forum we (myself and the Rabble Rousers) try to ruminate on the hard, uncomfortable aspects of Gospel living. It is messy, challenging and intense to struggle for social justice and the protection of the most vulnerable. It is confusing and complex to live a Spirit-filled life working toward systemic change, to fill our lives with works of mercy and simple living. There is no tidy and straight-forward way to contribute to the coming of God’s reign in this broken world. In fact, we experience union with God in the chaos and suffering, among the poor and the despised and the least and the little ones.

Here is a small sample of Christian blogging gems from around the web that express the spirit of Gospel living as being real Messy Jesus Business:

For the Church by Midwestern Seminary’s “The Messy Christian Life.”

The Blazing Center’sChurch is For Messy People.”

The Gospel Coalition’sI Come Messy and Ashamed” by Christina Fox.

Gospel Centered Discipleship’sMessy Discipleship” by Jake Chambers.

Monadnoc Bible Conference’sThe Gritty Gospel” by Roy Baldwin.

One of my favorite group blogs, The Mudroom, contains excellent stories and reflections related to Gospel living in a tone that fits with their tagline “making room in the mess.”

And I found the editorial “Becoming a ‘messy’ church under Pope Francis” in a 2013 issue of National Catholic Reporter. It addresses the effects of Pope Francis’ comments at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro:   

“I expect a messy World Youth Day. But I want things messy and stirred up in the congregations. I want you to take to the streets. I want the church to take to the streets.” 

Apparently in the UK, entire churches aim to be together in a way that honors the mess of Christian living. This approach is called “Messy Church” and is a program of the Bible Reading Fellowship. 

Plus, there are entire books (which I have yet to read) that seem to focus on the fact that living the Gospel is just messy and tough:

Messy and Foolish” by Matt Warner

photo credit: http://messyandfoolish.com/

Photo credit: http://messyandfoolish.com/

Messy Spirituality” by Mike Yaconelli

photo credit: amazon.com

Photo credit: amazon.com

With so much affirmation and encouragement, we can continue on our journeys with hope and joy for it all inspires a new beatitude: “Blessed are the mess-makers for theirs is the Kingdom of God!”

Walking for mercy, walking for justice

This week’s guest blogger, Michael Krueger, first met Sister Julia while working as a dishwasher at St. Rose Convent during his undergraduate years at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Inspired by those sisters and a Franciscan education he is an affiliate with the FSPA and, in La Crosse, was coordinator of Place of Grace Catholic Worker House and The Dwelling Place (a home for adults with developmental disabilities). Michael currently lives off of a rural highway near Madison with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Twice, I have had the opportunity to see singer Glen Hansard in concert: once at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater, and again at the Orpheum Theater in Madison. His singing has always impressed me for its range; the sheer volume and raw emotion he conveys. Often his voice emerges as a faint whisper; slowly increases in dynamic to a startling cry—almost a scream; then fades back just as quickly into the silence from which it came. He carries a powerful voice that speaks to the most intimate moments of life, singing as though he were an old friend. One song in particular, Her Mercy, evokes that intimate desire of relationship and ends with a repetitive invitation:

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

In March of last year Pope Francis made the announcement that 2016 would be known as the Year of Mercy. He did so without precondition, without limitation; not everyone may be ready, but we are all worthy and it will come. The works of mercy, much like the beatitudes, are concrete examples of the Gospel carried out. They can be simple and straightforward: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. But more so than action we are called to partake in the relationship of mercy that isn’t always straightforward—never simple—yet life changing and affirming.

This is the identity of mercy demonstrated by Pope Francis on Holy Thursday as he washed the feet of those incarcerated; visited the Greek Island of Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew to call attention to the plight of refugees; opened a Vatican conference challenging the notion that war can never be considered just. The difficulty of promoting mercy, though, is that we must also be willing to participate in the pursuit of justice for it to come. Sometimes it’s through the smallest of actions—such as a walk—that together we begin down this path of mercy toward justice.

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Stations of the Cross participants walk from Madison’s Cathedral Park (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

On Good Friday I had the opportunity to participate in a Stations of the Cross walk, sponsored by Madison Catholic Worker group, in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. The entire route was roughly a mile long and there were 10 stations, each represented by a building or an organization that sought to convey a specific theme or issue that calls for our attention, invites a response. It was the first time we’d organized this event and had hoped for a small number of participants. Seventy-five people gathered in Cathedral Park near the capital building. At 4:30 p.m. an opening prayer was read and the First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death, came to a close. Stillness pervaded the park.

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Stations of the Cross walkers make their way past the Wisconsin State Capital (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

From that stillness emerged the single beat of a drum followed by footsteps, slow at first, as we all began to walk. Again the beat of a drum. The voices of those walking whispered, hushed, harmonized, hummed: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The drum beat kept pace; participants carried simple wooden crosses painted white. Pause. Stillness. Noises of the surrounding traffic. We slowly stopped in front of the Dane County Courthouse. Amplified over the crowd a reader spoke the Second Station: Jesus is Given His Cross.

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

We prayed for our immigration system: families separated, those locked in detention centers. We stood where contemporary issues in which the reality of Jesus’ ministries—the physicality of the Gospels—are present: a homeless shelter, the police department, the county jail, the veterans museum. We sought to encourage our understanding of mercy and to challenge our association of justice—not a straight and absolute path, but a meandering and often fragmented journey into a greater depth of relationship and a wider sense of community.

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Walkers prayed where “the physicalities of the Gospels (like the 8th Station/Wisconsin Veterans Museum shown here) are present (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

I have now participated in a walking Stations of the Cross four times in the last five years (with the Franciscan Spirituality Center of La Crosse, Wisconsin) before this year). Prior to that I’d never felt a deep connection to the standard Stations of the Cross observed in any Catholic parish. For some reason this more physical form of reverence reminds me that the Gospel is an active presence in today’s society. The crucifixion made clear the sufferings in the world, but it was the resurrection and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples that would render His presence to the modern world, incarnate in the stations of today. Through Jesus’ resurrection we are able to encounter Christ in this modern narrative of the Way of the Cross. What Easter has brought us is an encounter with mercy.

“And when you’re ready … for her mercy … and you’re worthy … it will come.”

Additional photos, Stations of the Cross materials, and more information about the Madison Catholic Worker can be found at www.madisoncatholicworker.org.

 

French braiding my way to a holier Lent

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.

My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’!  You’ll get better!”

She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.

Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.

My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.

But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.

Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.

As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.

I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.

By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.

 

 

Mercy-ing as a form of resistance

We pray in the dark during these Advent days while we wait for the coming of the Light, of love enfleshed.

The darkness is everywhere and impacts each of us. We encounter pain and violent words, messages and behavior when we pay attention to the news, when we share in our neighbor’s pain, when we tune into the tension and the fear that is intensely plaguing humanity. Even the earth itself seems to be mourning our destructiveness and greed. Our hearts ache with sadness and anger as shootings, terrorism, and hate-mongering become more frequent.

In the darkness of discouragement, temptation comes quick. Maybe I shouldn’t bother or What difference does it make if I am charitable? or Why should I help them if I can’t even get my own life together? or How can we trust anyone!? Ugly attitudes of apathy and doubt can creep in and corrode at our faith and hope. Just like everyone else, we are capable of turning away from love and succumbing to fear and hate.

It is messy and challenging, but by the grace of God, we will not give into temptation. We will resist all darkness by offering compassionate alternatives in the face of fear and pain. The words of Ephesians 5 shall be our marching song as we rise up and rally as children of light:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light,for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them,for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret;but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says:
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”  
Ephesians 5:8-14

Yes, there are many ways that we can resist this darkness and unite as children of the light.  Especially now that the Jubilee Year of Mercy has begun, we will act as instruments of forgiveness and mercy.

Pope Francis has invited us all to imitate God, as mercy is an action, an attitude that the world desperately needs from us all now. “Mercy-ing calls us to forgive the unforgivable, to look tenderly upon the unappealing and the troublesome, to be compassionate to the ungrateful. It demands that we give a full measure, packed down and flowing over, and to empty our granaries again and again for those who cannot hope to repay us. It asks us to open our hands and hearts, not because we expect mercy in return, but because who we yearn to become could not—did not—do anything less for us.”  Although the word mercy-ing is made up by Pope Francis, this aspect of our faith goes all the way back to the days of Christ.

There are many ways that we can resist the darkness and get active mercy-ing during this Advent time.

Here are just a few examples of what others are doing. No one of us can do it all, so when one of us is mercy-ing then we all are:

Today, on Human Rights Day, and on other days we rally throughout the world. (Human Rights Day marks the anniversary of the international adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

We recommit ourselves to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We prayerfully say “yes” to the Gospel mission of loving our neighbors and enemies. 

Photo credit: Southern Rosary Works

We resist racism and xenophobia by opening our hearts, our Churches, our homes to refugees and immigrants. 

#JesusWasARefugee at La Salle Street Church, @ShaneClaiborne on Twitter
#JesusWasARefugee at La Salle Street Church, @ShaneClaiborne on Twitter

We pray for an end of all forms of torture and violence and speak out on behalf of the victims. 

We refuse to participate in the consumeristic, materialistic side of holiday celebrations and gear up for the Billion People March on December 19th.  

We boldly ask for spaces to be opened up to people in need of shelter

We acknowledge the fact that we are creatures in need of God’s mercy, and ask God and others for forgiveness. 

We willingly forgive those who have hurt us and we do simple acts of reconciliation, like sending notes of reconciliation and peace to rebuild relationships.

We light candles on our Advent wreaths and sing songs of joyful anticipation.

Yes, indeed, it’s amazing how the light shall come! Thanks be to God, in all of these acts of mercy-ing, our faith burns bright and we proclaim that Christ is our Light! Amen!

 

Pumped for Pope Francis in the USA

This afternoon Pope Francis will arrive in the USA!

Even though I can’t go the East Coast to greet him,  I am very excited!

Me, Pope Francis (cut-out), and Sister Laura
Me, Pope Francis (cut-out), and Sister Laura

During these first few weeks of school I have been doing different things with my students to get us all pumped up for his visit to our country.

(I made the local news last night, talking about this very fact!)

Here are some of the things we have been doing to prepare for his visit:

  • We have been praying with this prayer from the World Meeting of Families. The World Meeting of Families began today in Philadelphia and Pope Francis will be joining the conference at the end, this weekend.
  • We are celebrating what I call “Pope Francis Fridays.” On Fridays we pause and do something special related to Pope Francis such as contemplate one of his statements or actions,  or watch news stories related to him. For example, last week I asked my students to contemplate Pope Francis’ quote that “We all have the duty to do good,” and then journal about what good they had done that day.
  • We have been praying for him, for his travels, safety and health. We have especially been praying that we really take to heart the messages he has for us. We also have been praying for all the people who are doing the work of hosting and coordinating all the details of his visit.
  • I have a calendar in my classroom that is clearly labeled with the time when Pope Francis will be in the USA and we have been counting down the days until his arrival.
  • We have discussed what we know and appreciate about Pope Francis. For one of the Pope Francis Fridays we watched the coverage on his Virtual Audience to the USA and I heard the students comment about how much he inspires them.
  • This Thursday we are having a Pope Francis Party in my classroom. We’ll have treats, play games and watch the Pope make his address to U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, my community will be hosting a similar Watch Party for the public in St. Rose Convent.

It is an exciting time to be a Catholic in the United States of America. It is also an exciting time to be a religious sister and have a Pope that is a Jesuit and is informed by the beauty and challenges of community life. I really appreciated his recent comments to the crowd of priests, religious and seminarians. During this Year of Consecrated Life, and just a few months past when I made my final vows as a Franciscan Sister, Pope Francis’ reflections on living this unique vocation are very meaningful to me.

I know many people who going to the Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia to greet Pope Francis and participate in the gatherings. Apparently all the novices in the country were invited to the Mass of Canonization of Juniper Serra tomorrow (a fact that made me wish I would have delayed my vocation and were now a novice!). Fortunately, the blessing of modern technology helps me follow my friends who are attending online and participate from afar.

There is a lot of buzz and anticipation about what Pope Francis will say or do when he is in the USA. He is not a predictable pope. He proclaims the Gospel and acknowledges how challenging and messy it is to build the reign of God.

No matter what message of Truth Pope Francis may proclaim and inspire us with by his witness, may each of us follow his example. May we boldly love our neighbors and courageously enter into the broken and hurting parts of creation as we walk closely with Jesus. May we be real instruments of peace, just like Pope Francis! Amen!

 

Gleanings from “The Francis Factor”

 

Question from the audience:

I am a rich Christian. What should I do?

Shane Claiborne (smiling hugely):

Ha! If only Jesus had said something about that!

Sometimes I feel that if only Jesus had left some concrete teachings, a pattern of life to follow and a community of believers to hold on to, it would all be easier. I want him to tell me what to do today in this messy life and my attempts to be a Franciscan sister in a world that feels like it is disintegrating. But the truth is that he did. Today, in the 21st century, as we look around us at problems the planet has never seen before, we see the shining witness of Jesus as lived out in surprising ways.

Last weekend I attended The Francis Factor: How St. Francis and Pope Francis are changing the world, a conference looking at the contemporary implications of St. Francis and Pope Francis. We were over 1,000 people lead in contemplative reflection by a mystic, a scientist, and an activist: Father Richard Rohr, Sister Ilia Delio, and Shane. What would the little brother from Assisi tell us today? How does Pope Francis call us to be an authentic people of mercy and love?

"Dancing Francis" by FSPA
Dancing Francis courtesy of FSPA

Shane gently suggested that Jesus gives many different models of how to live faithfully, either from privilege or without it. Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor …” (Mathew 19:21).  Zacchaeus, instead, gives away half of what he has and then repays those he has cheated four-fold (Luke 19:8). Mary, Joanna, Susanna and other women contributed to the support of Jesus and his disciples “out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). After the resurrection followers shared all in common, were of one mind in the Temple and broke bread together (Acts 2:43-47). The Bible has a plethora of practical examples of what to do—as a Christian—with access to financial resources.

Pope-Francis-WavingAs we reflected more we realized that maybe our true poverty is in the quality of our relationships. Pope Francis and St. Francis, by their examples, break us out of the same-old same-old mold of complacency and individuality. Here are some suggestions from The Francis Factor:

  • Pray consciously for the gift to trust more. Let prayer fester inside of you, slowly changing all you do from the inside out.
  • Surround yourself with people who change your idea of what it means to be normal. Listen to the children, the dreamers and the riskers.
  • Change the patterns of your daily life so that instead of insulating from suffering, you embrace the Gospel call, cross and all.
  • Start to build communities of trust. When violence in our neighborhoods is on the nightly news, how do we reach out beyond our fear to genuinely find each other?
  • Become like the one we spend time with in prayer so we leave the fragrance of Jesus in the world everywhere we go.
  • Fascinate the world with God’s love.
  • Live from a theology of “enoughness,” where there’s enough for everybody’s need and not for everybody’s greed.

Yes, there is definitely a Francis factor going on. I can feel it in the air as the United States prepares for the pope’s visit. Something is afoot and it sure does looks like Jesus in modern clothes.

For the Love of Earth

Today is the World Day of Prayer for Creation!

This is an ecumenical and global day of prayer.  World-wide, Christians are united in prayer for the healing of this sacred home and our Sister, Mother Earth. Out of love for her, we pray in hope and thanksgiving.

Here in La Crosse, Wisconsin we are keeping vigil round the clock in our perpetual adoration chapel.

“Mary of the Angels and the moon” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Here is one of the particular prayers we are praying:

A Christian prayer in union with creation
By Pope Francis, Laudato Si

Father, we praise you with all your creatures. 
They came forth from your all-powerful hand;
they are yours, filled with your presence and your tender love.
Praise be to you!

Son of God, Jesus,
through you all things were made.
You were formed in the womb of Mary our Mother,
you became part of this earth,
and you gazed upon this world with human eyes.

Today you are alive in every creature
in your risen glory.
Praise be to you!

Holy Spirit, by your light
you guide this world towards the Father’s love
and accompany creation as it groans in travail.
You also dwell in our hearts 
and you inspire us to do what is good.
Praise be to you!

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made. 
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.

God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.

Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak, 
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.

O Lord, seize us with your power and light, 
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!

We pray in joy and wonder.

“Emily in awe” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Silence” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Life in dry places” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray in thanksgiving and praise of the beauty that God has made throughout the universe

“Mississippi River Clear” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Krka National Park, Croatia” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Found in Friendship Garden, La Crosse” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Iowan neighbors” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Exaltation” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Beach at Night, Florida” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray that we can be better stewards of the gifts that God has given us.

“Earth’s bounty at a market in Split” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Swamp in Minnesota” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Unnatural nest” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Climate Change Extreme” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“The view from Mt. Hosmer, Lansing, Iowa” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

We pray that we will have the graces and courage to be in right relationship with all of creation.

May God help us all to integrate the important and challenging teachings contained within Laudato Si into our daily lives.

Amen!

“Beautiful Baltic Sea” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA