Gazing toward the brightly lit horizon the other day, I noticed an expansiveness, an opening. Beyond what I could see was a mystery. Bigger than the dances of shadows and light, the frozen November snow and the clouds hanging out their hues of pink and gray, was the power of possibility, the rise of potential.
Looking at that sky, I thought of the formations of birds I saw flying across wide open skies a few days prior. I had traveled in a car from one Midwestern city to another with my attention cycling between the other Franciscan sister near me, the wonders on the other side of the chilled glass and the condition of my own body and mind. Even though the drive was nearly a week ago, I still wonder about it. I wonder where the birds had come from and where they were going. I wonder how long it takes for them to travel their distance. I wonder if they feel exhausted. I wonder if, for them, the sky feels big.
In each moment — in each expanse — I notice that I am open to the possibilities, that I don’t have a narrow view. My mind is not made up. I am open to learning or discovering. I am open to the largeness of mystery. I feel small, and in the smallness I feel a freedom, a gladness.
And, I can see that this disposition is different from how I relate to people, myself included.
The Gospel demands that we love God, ourselves and our neighbors with all that we are. The nature of love, I am learning, is allowing the space for the other to develop. To be a mystery. To be surprised. Love lets people change and grow.
Even though there are people I’ve known for years and years, I need to resist the temptation to assume they’ll react a certain way to anything I say or do. I need to let go of expectations that they’ll be in a mood I’ve encountered before or behave how they have in the past. Although every person is allowed to live a life made of patterns and habits, it’s not my duty to subject them to any traps or predictions. I’ve realized how much I hate it when others typecast me. Why would I ever do that to anyone else?
Similarly, I am trying to free myself from traps of thinking about myself. I am learning that a way to love myself is to allow space to grow and change. This is actually part of self-acceptance, of giving God a chance to work out conversions in my mind, heart and actions. So what that I have struggled to be kind, or gentle, or punctual, or tidy in the past? Perhaps I will be surprised with ease this one time.
I am thrilled to have learned a new way to love myself and others. I am excited to discover that a grace that companions love is the freedom to learn and grown.
And, I wonder what sort of beauty I will see if I allow myself to gaze upon the mystery of each person with the same sort of openness I see in the sky?
Once, while traveling home alone from a conference, I went to the airport early. I had some free time, and I was hoping to catch an earlier flight home. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, I spent most of the day walking up and down the terminal, watching people and trying out different corners for reading.
Throughout the day, I probably saw hundreds of people, if not thousands, passing in and out of the gates, hurrying to get their luggage, walking right past me. But besides the clerk who sold me my lunch, I sensed that no one really saw me. I blended right into the crowd of people and was insignificant to everyone.
I noticed, though, that I longed for a connection with someone else. I tried not to ignore anyone I encountered. I offered friendly smiles and thanks to the housekeepers who were doing a great job keeping everything clean. I smiled at the restroom attendants and the mothers and children who were traveling together. Yet, I was never able to enjoy a real, human conversation (except for when I found a quiet corner and called my mother who was a whole time zone away).
At one point during that day, I walked by a whole row of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at an upscale bar. Everyone was silent. Well-dressed young professionals and middle-aged business people sipped drinks and ate their lunches, but no one spoke. Instead, everyone peered into their devices, staring at their screens. I noticed a man and a woman of similar age and style of dress, both handsome and classy looking, sitting side by side. In my imagination, they were two single people bored with dating apps and lonely but too disengaged from the people around them to notice the potential connection sitting just inches away from their elbow. They missed the chance to interact, to discover their attraction, to realize their potential for romance or even life-long commitment. It’s not impossible: I’ve encountered several happily-married couples that met by chance in a public place.
I felt sad for all the missed opportunities to love in the world, for all the lonely souls remaining disconnected and unknown, for all of us being less than God made us to be.
What I observed that day was not unusual; it is less common nowadays for strangers to strike up a meaningful conversation with others than for people in crowds to be staring at screens. And, although I felt sad about the scene that day, it doesn’t deeply disturb me that our styles of behaving as social creatures are evolving; that we like to read articles, play games, and interact with others on our devices when we’re in crowded spaces. What difference is that from when people read newspapers, did crossword puzzles or wrote letters while they were traveling? What does disturb me is the effect that our screens have on our spirits and health, on how we may be missing chances to love our neighbors as Jesus has asked us to do.
And, it isn’t problematic that I was alone in the airport that day. Being alone is neutral and a descriptive fact. Yet, Church tradition and Scripture teach us that it is not good to be alone — or lonely, more specifically: that this is not the way God designed us to be.
The word “lonely,” though, is not neutral. It describes a subjective feeling: a negative psychological and emotional state that comes from a feeling of being disconnected, from lacking closeness with other people. In other words, if no one else is with you, you are alone. If you are feeling disconnected from people and feeling sad about it, you are lonely.
Loneliness is the gap between the needing to belong and not belonging to others, to a group. It is an experience of being isolated, separate, disconnected; of feeling like a misfit. It is a feeling of emptiness and lack, a space between you and other people — people you could be closer to emotionally. Annie Lenox sings about loneliness very well.
It is key to understand that loneliness is a personal, interior and subjective, which means that we all experience this type of sadness differently. We are probably the only ones who can diagnose this feeling in ourselves.
The ironic thing about loneliness is that none of us are alone in having this feeling. As I have written about before, loneliness is so common that it has become a serious public health problem.
For some of us, loneliness can be something that storms around violently, creating disasters in our lives. We may evacuate the places of security and safety, the places where it is smart to be. We may allow it to consume us, to infect us like a disease and debilitate our courage and confidence. We’ll stay in our comfort zone and avoid interaction, because we stop trusting that we have something to offer others. We begin to doubt that others even want to be around us.
There is no way to completely avoid feelings of loneliness. But we can make choices about how we navigate through them.
The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate me to reach out; to get closer to the tribe, to the community. Study helps us see it: being in strong relationships with others helps keep us safe, accountable and provides purpose and meaning in our lives. The more people who know and care for you, the more likely you are to survive.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I feel lonely: these feelings God is giving me are signals. As awful as the feelings are, I can read them as a sign. God is calling me to connect with my family, to work on getting closer to a neighbor, to reach out to a friend. I am invited to serve others; I am designed to be a social creature.
For me, it is helpful to keep in mind that none of us are made to be lonely, that this is not the will of God. Rather, God made us for each other, and true love requires relationship, connection. In the second creation story, as soon as God formed the first person, he made a statement about him: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) This announcement leads to more creative activity on God’s part (for that is God’s nature: to be creative and self-giving, to express love): the first man has a companion, a person to relate to and grow with.
The expansive relationality of God and humanity’s call to imitate it comes through in the first creation story too: God creates both genders together in God’s divine image and likeness. God gives these first humans a particular dignity and worth before announcing the very first commandment: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
In other words, when loneliness is painful, don’t be alone. Relate to each other. And expand your relationships. Then, you will be building up the Body of Christ.
It was a bright June day when I heard a sister lament. The sister: she is named for light; we call her Lucy. At a community meeting, she stood at a podium and spoke into a microphone, her voice full of passion and frustration. She gave a State of the Union speech of sorts, yet in this case, the Union was the planet Earth.
As her exasperated voice vibrated through the room, images of pollution and charts of species decline glowed on bright screens. Her tone was intense, strong. Young and old, at least seven dozen Franciscan Sisters tried to hear the truth; we tried to love our sister, even though her message was tough to hear. Many of us squirmed uncomfortably as she, an ecologist and farmer, admitted that the picture of this planet is grim.
“I am finding it really hard to love homo sapiens right now!” she admitted while acknowledging that she is not free from playing a part in the environmental crisis either. “Earth would be better off without us. It could spit us off and have a better chance of surviving.”
I was reminded of Sister Lucy’s lament this week as I watched Greta Thunberg’s speech given to the United Nations. You can’t skip this video. Please watch it right now. Even if you’ve already watched it, watch it again.
Like Sister Lucy, Greta’s tone is appropriately intense and angry, for the State of the Earth is serious. “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Now, I can’t stop thinking about how to act, how to not fail children like Greta (she’s 16 years old!), how to not fail the Christian call to steward the gifts of creation. To not change our ways and care for the most vulnerable is evil, as she says. I feel challenged and shamed, in the best of ways. I feel compelled to truly repent and to change. To admit my sorrow and to grow.
It is time for repentance and conversion. All of humanity, rich and poor, privileged and marginalized, powerful and weak — we all must act if we want to save ourselves. We must change our hearts, our minds, our ways of living. We must change our behaviors and attitudes.
No matter what type of change we’re talking about, all change starts with a shift in perspective. It’s time for us to see that we’re not here to have dominion over any other life. Rather, our health and survival as a species are completely dependent on the health and survival of other species, on every ecosystem. We are completely interdependent on other life forms.
When Sister Lucy spoke to my community in June, I learned a new way to understand this. We are called to be ecocentric instead of egocentric. Our species is one among many. As other species become endangered and extinct, so could we. As the planet becomes healthy and balanced again, so will we.
We are not above any other species. Rather, we are part of the ecosystems and are totally dependent on other species. And the earth is suffering, and it’s very serious. I’ll save you the litany of horrors. (But you can read this article to learn the latest.)
The actions we take from here on out must be based on these facts. We must act with wild hope and faith that every person matters, that all of our actions have significance. We must trust that small acts contribute to the big picture. What is needed now are individual lifestyle changes and systemic changes. We must truly act locally and unite globally to change the political and economic systems that are oppressing our planet.
There are a lot of options, really. 101 things you can do to fight climate change are listed here. Here are a few that I’ve decided on.
Eat differently. For some, like myself, that’s becoming vegetarian. For others, it’s eating less meat, or wasting less overall. Others opt to grow one’s own food or buy from local farmers. All of us must do something, though. “We need a radical transformation — not incremental shifts — towards a global land-use and food system that serves our climate needs,” Ruth Richardson in Toronto, Canada, the executive director at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, has declared. Clearly, it is essential we understand how global agriculture truly works and eat in ways that are more sustainable.
Travel less. This is the hard one for me because I tend to live a fairly itinerant Franciscan life. Yet, every time I calculate my carbon footprint, it is apparent to me that if I stop using planes and cars then I’d drastically reduce the harm I inflict on other species.
Stop purchasing bottled water and soft drinks. I like flavored and carbonated waters as much as the next person. But, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture water bottles every year. And, as it becomes more apparent that plastic recycling is mostly a myth, I am especially challenged to stop using all plastic. From now on, I will go nowhere without my refillable water bottle. It’s one simple thing I can do.
Join climate advocacy organizations, such as Oxfam,Greenpeace, or Catholic Climate Covenant. These organizations need your financial support and your participation. Join them in the advocacy events they organize in order to act for systemic change and help protect the planet and the poor. You can easily write your U.S. senator about supporting the International Climate Accountability Act (S.1743) here.
No matter how we respond to the prophetic laments of people like Sister Lucy and Greta Thunberg, let us act with love.
Our life depends upon it.
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! Amen. (Pope Francis, Laudato Sí)
“I have a home here because I know people care for me.” These are the words of my friend and housemate, Tikelah, also known as Miss T. Miss T had a home with her grandma as a young child. Since the age of 10, she has been jumping around from temporary house to life on the streets of Durham to a whole slew of group homes, desperately searching for a place of care to call home.
I have the gift of making a home at the Corner House along with Miss T and six others. We are a strange sort of family, rooted in our belonging in Jesus, committed to learning how to love and care for one another. Our ages range from 2 to 67. Some of us live with developmental disabilities, and some of us do not. All of us are bearers of Christ to one another and gift-givers in our little shared life.
What does it mean to be a community of care? How can we deepen in our care for one another in a world so caught up in efficiency and the self-protection of individualism? These are the current questions of my heart.
It is significant to me that the origin of the word “care” comes from Germanic and Old English words for “grieve” and “lament.” To be in a community of care has something to do with bearing one another’s burdens and crying out alongside one another. A community of care shares a togetherness in suffering. This is the kind of community to which Paul gestures when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).
I used to live in a Catholic Worker hospitality home committed to sharing daily life with some folks living on the streets in Durham. We would often repeat to one another, “abide, don’t fix.” I know well the impulse to see a problem or pain and immediately yearn to fix it, eliminate it or somehow make it better. We live in a world that is quick to celebrate cures and explanations, so often abstracted from the solidarity of relational care. This leads to all sorts of depersonalized policies and “solutions” for injustices that separate us, including such things as race, disability and poverty. A community of care is one in which being together is paramount. Something happens when that commitment to “be together” journeys through pain. The communion is transfigured and a new horizon of love opens up.
In our home, we have three residents who have lost their mothers and other close family members in the last several years. The sadness of these losses remains strong. Almost every single day, the grief bubbles up. We are learning the surprising gift of abiding. Even with the intimacy and intensity of our life together, the lurking traps of trying to avoid the pain or say something to make it all better (which isn’t actually possible) are present. We so badly want to take away the pain of those we love. There is such a temptation in the midst of relational care and responsibility to think we control the quality of life together through doing or saying the right thing. Praise God we aren’t in control. We are learning the beauty of releasement as we sit together and discover our own capacities to listen to one another. We are uncovering the vast depths of love and knowing that emerge from open-handed, steadfast presence with one another. It can actually be quite surprising what we learn of each other and ourselves and God when we stop trying to fix the hurt we see.
I wonder how contemplative practice might orient us to abide, rather than fix, in our care for one another? As we discover our own depths and become more aware of God’s direct, loving, active presence in our lives, we come face to face with our own wounds. In silent practice, in particular, we are confronted with our personal loneliness, fears and anxieties. Through a commitment to showing up to some form of contemplation–resting in the God who is the ground of our being–our relationship with these deep wounds shifts. Perhaps the control they once wielded over our patterns of behavior and thought life softens and we can see them for what they are. We can receive Jesus’ invitation into freedom.
“Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, wounds, failure, disgrace, death itself all have a hidden potential for revealing our deepest ground in God. Our wounds bear the perfumed trace of divine presence.” – Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land”
As we come to recognize in our our pain the “perfumed trace” of God’s transformative presence, our relationship with others and their own pains is changed. We begin to see the nonsense in fixing, and the beauty of abiding. And within abiding, there is room for deepening, always closer and closer, drawn into the merciful heart of Jesus. Whatever the journey of becoming more freely and fully who we are created to be entails, we are invited into it together, as a community that enters into pain before trying to do something about it. This is the slow, patient work of care.
The root of our care is God’s care for us. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God reveals the mysterious depths of care. In Jesus, God became a human being and identified with our human woundedness. God cried out with us and entered into our pain and loneliness and fear. God doesn’t know what it is to “fix” from a distance or to be absent from our pains. God is too simple for that. In Christ, we discover care in God’s steadfast, abiding nearness, transforming the blockages of sin into doorways for new life.
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.
On Valentine’s Day and every day, my celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
What does it mean to live consecrated celibacy on Valentine’s Day? In a world obsessed with relationships and sexuality, what does it mean to give that part of myself to Christ?
I have been living religious life for 16 years now, and my walk with celibacy has changed. When I was first discerning vows I met a wise, older sister who told me that I would struggle with each of the vows of poverty, obedience and consecrated celibacy in their own time. So far, she has been right. Just when I thought I was totally comfortable in these vows, life changed and caused me to look at them in a new light. I made vows for a lifetime, but live them out day by day. Every day I choose to be a religious sister. Every day I choose to be celibate.
For me, celibacy is about relationship: my relationship with Christ and consequently the shaping of my relationship with everyone else in my life. I love fiercely. I am madly in love with Christ, but I also love my sisters in community, my friends and my family like crazy. And yes, sometimes I am attracted to someone. Sometimes I find myself riding that wave of emotion on the inside and choosing appropriate boundaries on the outside. Like anyone already in a committed relationship, I can balance between choosing constancy to my commitment while honoring my own feelings. For me, celibacy is steeped in a whole lot of love.
Surprisingly, central to my love for Christ is love for myself. For many years, as I struggled with depression, I also doubted my own self-worth. Self-hatred kept me in bondage. Slowly my friends and family loved me into life, and one day it all shifted. I stopped hating myself and began the process of learning to love myself. This has probably been the greatest shift of my life and a surprising challenge to my celibacy. Suddenly, the whole world was filled with emotion. I never knew that I could love so much. My feelings were new and raw. My love for God suddenly meant more than it ever had before. The change was so strong that I began to ask myself if I truly wanted to be celibate.
Why am I celibate today, as I am, with my whole and beautiful self? I turn to seek the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I opened a journal I kept when I was first discerning vows and found some quotes.
“Many if not most persons who are drawn to a celibate life are not celibate because they made a vow of celibacy. Rather, they are drawn to vow celibacy because of a strong internal sense of prior claim. They sense that celibacy is a given of their being … The reason for celibacy may always remain difficult to explain … But for them, the claim of God on their lives is such that to give their whole embodied selves in sexual union with another person would be a denial of their own inner authenticity and integrity.” – Elaine Prevallet, SL
I feel a prior claim. Though it is not always easy, I like celibacy. I like how it organizes my life around love without one primary relationship. I like the sense of authenticity and integrity it gives me. I think my vows in religious life help me to be more “Sarah.” I am most fully myself as I live this life. For me, this life is all about relationship. The words of Sandra M. Schneiders, IHM, speak to my heart.
“Sometimes people ask religious how they persevere in a state of life within a church whose institutional corruption is so clear to them, and in which they may even be the objects of unjust persecution. Whatever answer they give, often the real reason is religious life is not, for them, a commitment to an institution, but a relationship with Christ that, in the final analysis, no authority can touch.” – Sandra Schneiders, “Selling All: Commitment, Consecrated Celibacy, and Community in Catholic Religious Life”
I love the church and the people of God, but when people wonder how I can stay in a church that often is so flawed, this is my reason. I am in love with Christ and Christ’s people, with my whole self today. This is a choice, one that I live every day. Even on Valentine’s Day.
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 Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
My week alone is coming to an end. I’ve been in hermit mode, making a retreat in a cabin in the woods. It’s truly been a grace to be here, to escape from my normal routines and offer some focused energy to a big project. The solitude became a shelter; the quiet like a balm to my restless heart and mind.
While I separated from others, a great tension of my religious vocation was exposed as well: solitude versus community.
It seems that somewhere along the way I was taught to fear the solitary life, to associate lonely people with a haunted energy that compels others to reject, fear and avoid them — as if loneliness were a contagious sickness.
Many of the stories that I devoured as a child contained pictures of recluses living in an old, rundown house on the edge of town, feared by the whole village. The image repeats itself in so many books and movies that… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students:why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?
I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?
The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”
“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”
The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”
I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher mode — I was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.
I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.
My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which way — if anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed something — I couldn’t see what he could.
It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.
But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?
Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day — my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances — become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.
My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:
Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
“With five brothers,” began my dad, telling the familiar story to my niece and nephew, “your Great-aunt Kathy was always getting her food stolen. Her spot was right next to your great-grandfather, who used to tease her. Every night at dinner, your Aunt Kathy would huddle over her plate, with her fork ready to stab anyone’s hand that came near her food. My dad would slowly creep his fork over to Aunt Kathy’s plate when he thought she wasn’t looking. Oh, she would get so mad! ” He imitated my aunt huddling over her food for dramatic effect. My niece and nephew giggled when they heard this story for the first time. “We always ate ’till all the food was gone,” he remembered, smiling. “There were never any leftovers at Thanksgiving!” he finished. My mother chimed in with another familiar part of the story. “The first time I went to your great-grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving I swear, it was like watching a plague of locusts devour the food,” she remembered.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that story, but my dad’s imitation of my Aunt Kathy always makes me laugh. I love this part of the holiday; the family stories and familiar anecdotes, trying to one up each other to see who can make everyone laugh the hardest. I feel so safe and connected to my family during these storytelling sessions. We create connections and community together. This is the heart of both the Thanksgiving holiday and the Eucharist — community. Loved ones gather at the table to share food, memories, and of course, family stories. Like life in my religious and church community, it can be both joyous and complicated.
I imagine that the Last Supper with Jesus was, in many ways, not unlike many Thanksgiving holidays. I’m certain there was a tremendous hustle and bustle of making plans for travel and preparations for the meal itself. Where would they eat? Who would prepare the food? Who was invited? Also like many Thanksgivings I have experienced, once the festivities began, there must have been both joy in being together, a sharing of memories, prayer and, definitely, disagreements.
One of the best things for me about Thanksgiving is the intergenerational sharing. I delight in watching my nieces and nephews as we gather around our Thanksgiving table each year. Since I am no chef, I often have the responsibility of keeping the children in my family occupied as the others take over the kitchen to prepare the feast. This year will be the first time my six-month-old great-nephew will join us. (How am I even old enough to have a great-nephew?) I am so excited to be able see Thanksgiving through his eyes.
Slowly but surely, little by little, responsibility for Thanksgiving has shifted to my generation. My earliest Thanksgivings were put on by my grandparents. We used to switch off and on from my mother’s parents to my father’s mother’s house. Eventually, my parents’ generation took over hosting duties. Now, my siblings take charge. It wasn’t without tension or disagreements. My parents had to slowly let go of some of the things they used to do; how they prepared the food, what was served, and so on. This was especially hard for my father, who delights in cooking. Over the years, circumstances just made it easier for my brother or my sister to host the meal.
It can be difficult to avoid conflict with family members during holidays. Sometimes the conflict is as simple as expectations for helping in the kitchen, or an unkind word or two. Others are more deep-seeded such as those driven by grief, broken relationships or politics. It can take a great deal of patience, forgiveness and humility to navigate these relationships, especially in a family of stubborn, hot-headed Irish-American Catholics! This is true of disagreements in our church family as well. Patience, forgiveness and humility are key in healing the great divisions.
Loss can also take on more significant meaning during the holidays. We mourn those who are no longer with us. We miss their presence. This is my best friend’s first Thanksgiving since her mother passed six months ago. “It just won’t be the same without Mom. I can’t do everything she used to,” she’s lamented to me. My heart feels for her. All I can do is offer my support, and assure her that her mother would be proud of the effort she and her siblings make this year. I wonder what that next Passover, the year after Jesus died, was like for the remaining apostles. (It would seem that they were scattered over the Middle East and Europe.)
One thing that we do know for sure: they told the story to the first Christians. The significance of that Passover has been handed on to us from them, and has become the centerpiece around which the Christian community gathers.
Isn’t that the heart of Eucharist? A handing down of the story of our salvation, a meal shared in memory of the one who loved us even to his death on the cross? And isn’t that the heart of what we do at Thanksgiving? Share a meal and our life stories together? It’s how we come to know each other as individuals and as family. It’s how we pass on the values that are important to us to the younger generation. It’s how we remember those who have left us. The story connects and bonds us. This Thanksgiving, I hope to focus on listening to the stories of the lives of those I love, and sharing my life story with them.
Sister Shannon Fox
Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.
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.
Beheaded bodies lying in the streets. Stray dogs and pigs picking at human corpses on the roadside. Vibrant communities silenced and still, everyone indoors, too afraid to go to school or to the market. Roadblocks stopping travel, isolating entire villages. A pregnant woman delivers a baby who doesn’t survive because they can’t get to the hospital. Food rots because no one can travel and farmers can’t transport their harvests, and survivors of violence become increasingly malnourished, moving toward starvation.
These scenes may sound like snippets from a nightmare, but for Anglophones in Cameroon, these are the current facts of life. I gleaned those descriptions listed from an email forwarded to my inbox a couple weeks ago, written by a Cameroonian to a friend of my community, a philanthropist in Wisconsin. The writer was lucky to be able to send the message to his friend in Wisconsin; the Cameroonian government has blocked the internet in the Anglophone region frequently in recent months. The writer is lucky to be alive.
Cameroon, a nation in West Africa, is about 80 percent French speaking and 20 percent English speaking. Late in 2016, students and professionals such as educators and lawyers in the Anglophone region began to protest the Francophone majority, declaring that they were being treated like second-class citizens. In response to their protests, the Cameroonian government… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]