God, the Ocean

A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.

(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)

I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away,  and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.

(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.

You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark. 

On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.

Sunset at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A couple of days ago, while working on preparations for a writers’ retreat I am leading, my study brought me to this letter to artists by St. Pope John Paul II, which I didn’t know about before. A quick read brought me to this phrase, a total thrill:

“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” – St. Pope John Paul II

Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.

This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.

St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.

And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.

I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.

Will you come and swim with me?

At Cape Point, South Africa in 2002.

Dark Devotional: Getting Naked

The trees are getting naked around here.

The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.

It’s a stripping.

And, a great modeling of love.

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.

– Deuteronomy 6:5

Radical discipleship demands a bold love from me, from you. God seems to expect the giving back of our whole selves to… [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos, about the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary TimeContinue reading here.]

When Jesus came to the ER

It may have been one of the loneliest moments in my life. I was alone in a small, bare triage room with only an examining table. An armed guard was posted outside the door. My clothes had been taken from me and I was wearing a flimsy gown that opened in the back. I was barefoot. I stayed like this for two and a half very long hours. I felt totally alone.

hospital-bed
Image courtesy freeimages.com

I had just checked myself into the emergency room for depression. Through years of struggle and ups and downs, I had reached a low point. I did not feel capable of keeping myself safe so I turned to hospitalization. What I didn’t know was that in this moment of crisis, while I waited to be examined and for a room to open on the unit, that I would feel so utterly alone and abandoned.

The hospitalization ended up being quite helpful and I was able to get to a better space in my life with more stability. Months later, while I was on retreat, the memory of the small room returned to me in prayer. Through the eyes of prayer, this is what I saw:

I’m alone, sitting on the bare, cold floor. A security guard waits outside the room, keeping watch. Then the door opens and Jesus walks through. Jesus looks like a farmer woman. She’s wearing blue jean overalls and has black curly hair that overflows her tender face. She looks at me and smiles and suddenly, I don’t feel so alone. Jesus walks in the room and sits down on the floor behind me. She encircles me with her arms. I lean back and place my head on her heart. I am surrounded with love. All at once, we are in a beautiful field umbrellaed by a bright blue sky. Instead of a bare, tile floor we are sitting on the soft earth with our feet and hands digging into the dark, rich dirt. We stand up and she takes my hand. We are running in the field filled with stunning wild flowers. I feel free and happy. I know Jesus is with me.

That prayer helped to heal my memory. It also taught me an important lesson. I am never alone. Jesus is always with me. Especially in those moments when I feel most abandoned, there are times that I am most closely accompanied by the Living Christ. When life gets messy, Jesus shows up. This lesson has helped sustain me through other difficult moments and helped me be present to others when they are struggling. It has also taught me about love.

 

lava-flow
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Love is a letting go, a stripping of self, an abandon of control. I also firmly believe that love is the entire purpose of our lives. I see love as an endless stream of hot, fiery lava. In some place or time that lava flows without end. But here on Earth, love crusts over like lava does when it hits cold air. We spend our lives bumping into other people’s crusts. We spend our lives learning how to open up and to love more completely. That is why we are here.

Depression has taught me that through my darkest moments, I am not alone. Even though it is a struggle to always see it, I am deeply loved. Jesus is with me. My friends and family and sisters in community are with me. I still have something to give. I can hold the hand of someone else when they are in the darkness. I can be a small light for them. I can be the voice of love because through experience I know we all walk together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessey is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

 

St. Joe and me

I have been praying to St. Joe, the earthly father of Jesus, a lot lately.

I call him St. Joe instead of St. Joseph because shortening his name makes him more real to me, like a friend. When I pray to saints it is helpful for me to behave like we are in relationship; change occurs on a relational level.

I am a single, 27-year-old female who is not trying to sell a home or become a carpenter. Although I have little in common with St. Joe, we have been having a lot of chats.

I am a nanny by trade and the majority of my week is spent loving and taking care of other people’s children. I educate, wash the clothes and change the diapers of little ones.

St. Joe is my friend through all of this labor because, when it comes to loving the children of others, I am pretty sure there is no one better to model my heart after. I am often tired and drained in this work. The words I say seem to bounce right off the back of the energetic four-year old. Frustrated again and again, I turn to St. Joe:

“Please help me to love this child like you love Jesus.

Help me to not get caught up in the frustrations of the day-to-day.”

This simple prayer calms and encourages me to think more deeply about the dynamics of the Holy Family. I find myself wondering, just as I do about myself, if St. Joseph knew how difficult raising a child would be, if he ever doubted that what he was doing mattered and if the love he provided was enough.

While teaching children as a nanny, I am learning too. It shows me that loving people is messy and imperfect, that God gives us the saints to encourage us and to help us strive for holiness. They are given as gifts because God loves us so infinitely and provides examples of people just like us who have become saints. Similarly, as I explore and deepen my faith Jesus’ lessons on loving children, especially as a non-biological parent like St. Joe, inspire me.

snow-globe
“I have had this Holy Family music box since I was two,” says Alicia, “I simply adore the way Mary and Joseph are looking at baby Jesus.” (Image courtesy Alicia Grumley)

And the more I talk to St. Joe about caring for children not our own, I realize we have even more in common. I am loved very deeply by a stepparent. As I look at the role St. Joseph plays in the life of Jesus and the role my own stepmom plays in mine, I realize that by taking on the responsibilities of loving another’s child we open our hearts to being conductors of the spiritual works of mercy. We embrace all seven of them: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.

I know that, throughout her marriage to my dad, my stepmom has and continues to do all of this for me and my brothers. I suspect that St. Joe would have also practiced these works of mercy with Jesus. I imagine that there were times when St. Joe prayed to be better at these things, just like I do.

So what do I, a single 27-year-old non-homeowner and non-carpenter have in common? Love. Lots and lots of love by the will of God, mercy. I know I need it, and I know I can grow by practicing it.

Thanks for the example, St. Joe.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Alicia Grumley has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they met at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They remain connected as members of an online writing group. Alicia’s writing can be found online at OwnYourOxygen.wordpress.com (which is her self-care advocacy site) and AliciasAlleluia.wordpress.com (where she delves into aspects of the Catholic faith that interest her) You can also find her work at Sick Pilgrim.

 

Praying onward, with more longing

Yesterday, some of my elder FSPA sisters and our prayer partners rang in the celebration of 140 years of perpetual adoration at St. Rose Convent in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They collectively chimed the bell 140 times plus, to mark the beginning of the 141st year of non-stop prayer, once more. This is a sacred anniversary that we celebrate with joy and gratitude. (You can watch the ritual of bell ringing here.)

What is our tradition of perpetual adoration?

Since August 1, 1878, at least two people have kept vigil in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For most of my congregation’s history, this practice was maintained by us FSPA. Now, over 175 prayer partners help us pray for the needs of the world, including the requests that people send to us.

Here’s a nice picture of Sister Sarah and I praying in our Adoration Chapel. (You’ll have to trust me that those are the back of our heads!)

When I lived and ministered in La Crosse, my adoration hours were the most sacred, grounding part of my routine.

Now that I am “out on mission” and ministering hours away from the Adoration Chapel, the rhythms of this prayer happening in the background of my community life remains a grounding force that enlivens my service and motivates me to be bread unto others. Praying in our chapel when I am home in La Crosse is a touchstone for me, a sacred communion that helps me steadily respond to God’s constant invitation to love.

I like this infographic that summarizes our tradition, even though it’s a bit outdated. (Last year, we prayed for over 30,000 intentions from all over the world!)

prayer infographic

What do we do during our adoration hours?

Well, we pray! In all sorts of ways. Some of us pray rosaries, some read the Bible or pray the Divine Office.

We start and end every hour with a particular prayer:

O Sacrament Most Holy,

O Sacrament Divine,

All Praise and All Thanksgiving 

Be Every Moment Thine.

Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,

Furnace of Divine Love,

Grant Peace to the World.

This prayer is then followed by the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi before the adorers enter into silent prayer side-by-side.

There are prayer books at each kneeler in the chapel that many of spend time with, including prayers that are written particularly for adoration. We pray with the list of intentions near the altar, compiled and organized by Sister Sarah, who is our perpetual adoration coordinator. We meditate and listen to God and enjoy his holy presence.

Sister Sarah has created several excellent videos about prayer, and adoration in particular. The series, called “Adoration Talk,” does a great job of explaining our practices and teaching the tradition.

Here’s a sample, a video that outlines and explains what we mean by adoration.

One of the things that Sister Sarah says in the video is that “in adoration, we become both very intimate with the mysterious presence of God and, at the same time, we are longing for more.”

Prayer is an energy of longing. We pray because we long for peace, for healing, for miracles. We pray because we are filled with an energy of hope — with belief that Christ’s resurrection continues to transform all of creation. We long to be closer to God, and we long to be healthier and holier humans who reflect God’s light and love in our actions and being. We long to transform, into better parts, images of the Body of Christ for today’s hurting world.

And so, at the start of the 141st year, the vigil of perpetual adoration continues onward. 24/7, hour after hour, we will cycle through the chapel. We will kneel and bow. We will pray and listen.

As we do, we give God all the longing in our hearts and open up to be transformed.

Wonder in the wilderness

“In the Porcupine Mountains” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Over 25 years ago, I was a bruised and bug-bite-dotted scrawny girl, wonder-eyed and singing loudly in the middle of an Iowan prairie with a crowd circling a glowing fire. The day was dimming around us, crickets chirping through the tall blades of grass, the stars slowly becoming visible in the navy-blue night sky.

Then and there, sitting on a log, I encountered God. I felt God present in the beauty of evening, the energy of community, the rhythm and vibrations of our songs. The light of Christ seemed to pour from our hearts. Joy, peace and awe overwhelmed me. That night, I fell completely head-over-heels in love with God.

I was at EWALU in northeast Iowa, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Bible camp not too far away from the farm I called home. I was singing loudly, proudly, enjoying the hand motions and dances right along with the songs. All the other young people around me seemed to be genuine in their prayers, authentic in their worship. I felt loved, accepted, secure; I wasn’t worried about whether I fit. I felt a sense of belonging and freedom. All this helped me sing and dance for God with gusto.

Yet I started to have questions, questions that became…  [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Questions as a path to unity

Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.

Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.

He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.

I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)

I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.

I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.

Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.

Woman contemplates under the stars

Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?

What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?

Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.  2 Corinthians 4:7-10

Listening to and praying with the cries of the children at the border

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
-Proverbs 31:8-9

Like everyone else who understands that the Bible is a book that calls us to love without limit, I am heartbroken by the splitting of families happening at the U.S./Mexico border.

You probably heard that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused the Bible to justify the sin of separating families. I am grateful that Stephen Colbert stood up for the Truth of love and justice in response, as you can see in this video.

God’s law is love. The Bible is all about love; love is the entire New Testament covenant. Christians must be more concerned with love than borders, security or any human-made law.

Love can be painful and demanding. When we really love, we often feel heartbroken. Because my heart has been so heavy about the ways that children in poverty are suffering, I wasn’t sure how to write about it. I doubted I could say anything that wasn’t already being said. I felt helpless.

But then, once the audio of children crying inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility was leaked by Propublica, I knew I didn’t need to say anything new or different. I could share this video with any of you who may not have yet had a chance to listen, and by doing so I could help give voice to the voiceless–the children trapped at the border. I could let the children speak for themselves.

Here is the video. Please listen. As you do, love the children. Imagine their faces. Please pray for them, for their parents, for those who must work in the facilities, for the people in power who can end all this horror.

When I first listened to the voices (and cried and prayed) I was reminded of Archbishop Jeckle’s words at The Summons event in Postville, Iowa on May 11, 2018:

“I would like to cry, to weep. And I would like to say we should weep as a form of prayer, as a way to wash our hearts—to soften our hearts.”

We must weep, we must soften our hearts; we must offer our broken hearts to God for mending. Crying is an appropriate way to pray in this situation.

Then, with God’s grace helping us gain some strength, we can get to work. Let’s learn the facts about what’s happening at the border by reading this article. Informing our minds is another way to pray.

Then, let’s donate our dollars and energy to organizations offering aid to families separated at the border. Or, let’s plan to participate in an upcoming protest of the separation of families, such as this one in Chicago or Families Belong Together events near you, as listed here. Protest and charity can also be ways to pray.

However we cry, pray and act on behalf of the children and their parents, let us remember that God hears our cries; God is with us and empowering us to remain courageous for justice and peace. Thanks be to God!

The righteous cry out, the LORD hears

and he rescues them from all their afflictions.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,

saves those whose spirit is crushed.

Many are the troubles of the righteous,

but the LORD delivers him from them all.

He watches over all his bones;

not one of them shall be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked;

those who hate the righteous are condemned.

The LORD is the redeemer of the souls of his servants;

and none are condemned who take refuge in him.

Psalm 34:18-23

Praying with the power of paradox

Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I am on the shore of the Mississippi River. I can’t see into the water in this light. I can’t see the bottom of the river, or much more than the movement of the surface and the reflection of sky bright upon the ripples and waves.

I know something of this body of water, its power for life and destruction, its broadness and strength — but I’ve never before encountered these particular droplets joining together into the one mass that flows in front of me. It is at once so familiar and completely new.

I’ve never traveled to the source of this mighty stream nor to its end. I only know a slice of this water. I’ve crossed this river hundreds of times, but only a section, really — the bridges between the Twin Cities and Dubuque. This region — often called the Upper Mississippi Valley — feels most like home to me, compared to any other place I have been.

The presence of this stream during different eras of my life has convinced me I know this river well, has put me into relationship with it, has established an affection for it within me. Only reluctantly, awkwardly, can I admit that…

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