Don’t blink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Rabble Rouser:

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

From stone to flesh

“Heart of Stone” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

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

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

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

bonds that build and never break

I am not afraid of death.  I do not fear death because somehow I am confident that I’ll get to know Jesus better at that point and I really look forward to that. But, I don’t want to die.

I am afraid of grief.  Grief can damage faith.  It can destroy joy and break people down.  The fear I do have about my own death is what it might do to the people who love me.  I’m afraid of people I love dying because I don’t know how I would live with the awful taste of grief in my own body, soul and mind.  And, I doubt I can live without them.

Plus, tragedy and suffering can be so life changing that the identity of a person can be transformed.  Even person-hood and dignity itself can be questioned.  When Desmond Tutu was asked what the worst thing about South African Apartheid was he said that the greatest tragedy was how the injustice caused people to doubt that they were children of God.

In addition, when confusion is really thick, doubt can cloud out joy, hope and a sense of purpose.  Questions can collide with trust.  Why would God let this happen? How could a good God let us suffer?  How is a Christian to respond?  What are we supposed to say? How are we supposed to be?

I’m learning some answers because I keep living.

I have heard some of my students say that death is their greatest fear.  Nearly every day I hear them pray for a safe return home from school and a safe return back tomorrow.  I haven’t prodded to find out exactly what they fear about death- whether it’s what it would do to others (like me) or how it would cut their lives short, or something else completely.  No matter the reason, their fears are well founded.  Violence hurts and kills people in neighborhoods all over Chicago nearly every day.

This weekend our country is commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Certainly, the nation can do well from pausing to remember how suffering has changed us.  It’s valuable to tell our stories and to hear the memories of others.  While we listen, let’s build community and bless each other through loving presence.

Here’s the “How To” that I have learned:  No matter the cause of death and tragedy, we must respond with love.

Lately, I’ve learned about love in a whole new sort of way.  My own experience has convinced me and I’m learning it from how my students are.  When tragedy, such as death, breaks us down and contaminates us with pain, the most healing thing that a person can offer is loving presence.

The walls of death can’t clog the power of a loving presence.  Through grief, love beyond the material world is real to us.  Even beyond death, those whom we love are with us.  When we stay awake and listen deeply this Truth gazes back at us through the suffering.

This love bonds and blesses. It’s beautiful how it can’t really break.  Thanks be to God for the mystery and wonder. Thanks be to God that love keeps building.  Thanks be to God that we’re children of love and at death we don’t really part.

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.  -Romans 14:7-9