“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”
The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.
“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.
For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.
The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrimat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?
Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.
And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.
But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.
I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…
Last Friday morning—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—two screens were in front of me; words and images flooding in.
A glowing laptop sat upon my knees, my web browser opened to an online Bible, Psalm 34. It was there because I awoke with this song in my head, particularly the “The LORD hears the cry of the poor, blessed be The LORD” part.
I stared at these words:
Keep your tongue from evil,
your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
~ Psalm 34: 14-15
I heard these words:
Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body. And I will never, ever let you down.
America will start winning again, winning like never before.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.
I can’t make sense of the division, the gap between the two ways. I know, though, that I want to live under the influence of Scripture, the sacred Word of God.
I wonder what is happening to the Body of Christ; whether the wounds are becoming infected. Perhaps flesh is being gouged, torn apart. Maybe blood is flooding our world and we are too blind to see. (I have been meditating on the wounds of Christ ever since Inauguration Day.)
Certainly, much stirs in my mind and heart. What will happen to the children of God who are in the most vulnerable corners of society? What will happen to those who have been declared as enemies?
I see faces of friends waiting for decades for their citizenship papers to come through. I visualize children passing their lives away in detention centers. I see the face of a teen I taught years ago—a beautiful Iraqi Muslim who had migrated out of a war zone.
I think of the millions of people who are also fleeing war zones, oppression, starvation—good people who of course would prefer to stay securely in their homeland but can’t. They are powerless in their circumstances. (I know the feeling of powerlessness.)
I remember the women—young mothers coming right off the streets, desperate to get their lives together—choosing life with every chance, only to have the structures of society spit out a mess of impossibility at them. It’s impossible (all at once) to afford food, to find a job, to have good transportation, to find secure housing and to have proper health care but somehow—perhaps by the might of love alive within them—they persevered and gained stability for their family.
I think of the polluted waters and soils; of the climate refugees moving from place to place across this planet.
I think of the words of Jesus Christ uttered from the cross, his body aching with misery: “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
I feel my own heart thirst for justice and peace for all; for a world centered on the love of Truth and guided by Gospel values—values of sacrifice for the sake of the other; values of protection of the planet and the poor and vulnerable.
Inauguration Friday was as another Good Friday, another day when the Body of Christ was wounded upon the cross.
Meditating on the cross of Christ in the world today, I remember my deep conviction that the United States, with only 5 percent of the population but with 25 percent of the world’s wealth, needs not selfishly protect itself—we need not to give into the temptations for greed, power and pride. We must reject all of the seven deadly sins.
With all the news of heartache, fear and pain rapidly increasing in our world today, it seems we are stuck upon the cross, we are stuck in Good Friday.
We need not stay stuck. We believe in Easter Sunday and we know it is always coming in three days. We know that Christ’s wounds upon his body have been transformed, glorified.
The LORD’s face is against evildoers
to wipe out their memory from the earth.
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.
~ Psalm 34: 17-19
We are that body, formed and guided by mercy, generosity and hope. We shall arise as one body united, radiating Love and Truth.
“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.
“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.
“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”
As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”
I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? Why would the Church choose to lift up and honor the holiness of those who spent their lives as doorkeepers?
The unexpectedly large number of porter saints is a testament to how central hospitality is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The refrain repeated over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures is to remember that since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we are to welcome strangers now. And Scripture reminds us continually that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. Abraham entertaining angels unaware in Genesis. Cleopas and his companion inviting the stranger on the Emmaus road in for a meal, only to discover Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus insisting to his bewildered followers that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him.
This truth is made visible during the Advent season when Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics act out the Gospel through the practice of Las Posadas (literally, “the inns”). For nine consecutive nights, we gather to re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary asking for shelter in Bethlehem. It is a deeply incarnational practice which literally challenges us to stand in the shoes of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, or to stand in the shoes of those in relative warmth and safety indoors that have to respond to their request.
“In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter,” a group sings in Spanish outside a locked door. “My beloved wife can travel no further.”
After being turned away several times, the door is opened and the group representing the Holy Family is welcomed in joyfully. “Enter, holy pilgrims,” is the jubilant refrain of those inside as they offer hospitality to the stranger – who is Christ.
During the years I worked in Hispanic parish ministry, I celebrated Las Posadas with a primarily Mexican and Central American immigrant community. During the shortest days of the year, we gathered in the dark, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together against the cold which worked its way through our wool hats and fleecy gloves. We passed a flickering flame from taper candle to taper candle, cupping our hands to carefully guard the small flame from the December wind, the warm glow lighting our faces as we processed. My breath came out in white, cloudy puffs as I sang the familiar words of the lilting melody. And then, the open door, the sung words of welcome, the warmth and light of the parish hall, the inviting scent of steaming pots of pozole and hot chocolate, the smiling faces of friends.
Tragically, in the past weeks since the election, we have seen a heart-breaking, disturbing rash of hate crimes, many directed at immigrants, especially those from Latin America or the Middle East.
In the face of our current political and social reality, the witness of porter saints like St. Conrad and the Las Posadas tradition offer an urgent challenge and poignant invitation for Christ-followers not only to open doors and keep a safe distance, but to open ourselves to conversion through encountering the stranger. To see the stranger as a blessing, not a burden. To believe we may catch a glimpse of our God if we dare to unlatch the lock, turn the doorknob, and step onto the threshold to greet those who knock.
This advent, through my work as a Spanish-language legal interpreter, I have glimpsed God through “Catalina,” a plucky, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old Central American girl. She spoke with a straight-forward, quiet confidence as she described leaving her home in the rural highlands, traveling through Mexico on buses, and entering the United States to reunite with family here.
“I wasn’t scared,” I said, interpreting Catalina’s words from Spanish to English for the immigration lawyer. “I prayed for God to be my guide. Every time I got on a bus, I would pray for God to protect me. And my prayers were answered.”
At the end of the legal consultation appointment, Catalina thanked me and clasped my hand, her bright brown eyes locking on mine with a sudden, shy seriousness.
“God is with you,” she said.
Perhaps unwittingly, this immigrant teenager girl spoke the name of God that we chant, sing, and meditate upon during these Advent days of hoping and waiting: Emmanuel. God is with us.
Catalina’s unexpected blessing challenges me to grow in trust and reminds me of the many ways my heart has been expanded through encountering the stranger on the threshold of an open door.
St. Conrad, and all you porter saints, pray for us that we, too, may open doors and make room for the coming of Emmanuel.
About the Rabble Rouser:
This week’s guest blogger is Rhonda Miska. Like Sister Julia, this Messy Jesus Rabble Rouser is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a member of Giving Voice. She is a candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and freelance writer who teaches religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque (in the fine state of Iowa – Sister Julia’s home state!). She studied at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and her past ministries include congregation-based community organizing, coordinating a winter shelter for people who are homeless, accompanying migrant children in legal proceedings, and living in a community with adults with special needs. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.
“So, you’re Catholic, but you’re married to a Lutheran pastor. How does that work?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked this question in my seven years of marriage. Depending upon the inquirer, I have a few canned answers that easily roll off the tongue, but the simplest and most genuine is this: “By the grace of God!”
When I boarded a plane bound for Notre Dame 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the journey would…
Nicole Steele Wooldridge has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since they were neighbors in Chicago several years ago. Having majored in Theology and International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!), Nicole shares Sister Julia’s passion for Catholic Social Teaching. Though her goal is to travel the globe (five continents and 24 countries down … everywhere else in theworld to go!), she is happily rooted in the Seattle, Washington area for now while she and her husband raise their two young daughters. Nicole’s columns for Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting, particularly as it relates to the radical call of Gospel living. When she’s not working part time at a local college or chasing her girls around the house, Nicole enjoys reading spy novels, visiting microbreweries, and discussing black holes. She is extremely grateful to be a part of the Messy Jesus Business family!
In the midst of a war, I found my home in the Catholic church.
I was a college student, majoring in history. Studying history meant, among other things, studying war and the destruction and injustices that wars had repeatedly caused. The more I studied this side of history, the more passionate I became about social movements and peaceful alternatives. The truth of history convinced me that war, militarism and violence were all immoral.
This is a Holy Week, a week to review all of salvation history. This is a week to enter into the story of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.
Jesus, who is our love and savior, has experienced the grit, the suffering, the mystery and mess of our human living. With active imagination and prayerful hearts, we remember how Jesus is a God of the material world.
We ponder the beauty and simplicity of the materials we encounter each day. And, we pray and wonder. Did Jesus know things like these too?
I had a Jesus moment while putting my daughters to bed the other night. My 3 year old was sick: fever, cough, runny nose, etc., and it was clear that she was going to need some special attention in order to fall asleep. Instead of going through our typical evening proceedings, I gave her a teaspoon of honey and tried to rock her to sleep. But as I did so, my younger daughter became increasingly distressed: she wanted her normal bedtime routine.
My husband and I have worked hard to establish a predictable sequence of events leading up to bedtime, and our girls appreciate the consistency. But, sometimes, circumstances demand that the routine be disrupted.
And that’s uncomfortable.
My younger daughter was upset because I had breached the established order of things. I had broken the rules. As she fussed and clung to me and tried to stop me from rocking her sister, I became irritated. Couldn’t she see that, right now, the needs of her sister trumped the “rules”? After untangling her from my leg for the umpteenth time, it struck me that this was probably exactly how Jesus felt when he was reproached by the Pharisees for healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his wise compassion, knew that giving sight to the blind was far more important than following the rules. But, much like my daughter felt unmoored without her typical bedtime routine, Jesus’ disregard for the rules made the Pharisees feel insecure, and they reacted with scorn and judgment.
I am frequently a Pharisee.
But here’s an encouraging thought: although I was irritated by my younger daughter’s dogmatic approach to bedtime, I certainly didn’t love her any less because of it! I was, in fact, very sympathetic to her discomfort; I wished only for her to understand that, although I cherish them both equally, her sister’s need was greater in that moment.
As Catholics, we profess a Preferential Option for the Poor. This is a rich and provocative theological concept to which entire books are devoted, but it essentially boils down to this: God is most present to those who are most vulnerable and—as followers of Christ—we must similarly prioritize the poor. One of my spiritual directors described it this way:
Theologically, the notion of preference says more about the goodness of God than it does about the goodness of the poor. It does not mean the poor are necessarily more virtuous, more deserving, or more holy than those who are not poor… It means that God reaches out in love to those who have a greater need. —
When one of my daughters is sick, I reach out to her with a special kind of love, not because she is better than her sister, but simply because she needs me more. As a mother, it is easy—instinctual, even—to give preference to a sick child without wavering in love for her healthy sibling.
As a community member, churchgoer, and citizen, it’s a lot tougher.
We who believe in a Preferential Option for the Poor are called to stand in solidarity with and prioritize the most vulnerable. That may sound romantic, but this is messy, difficult, and sometimes exceedingly unpopular work. Still, we are called to do it with cheerful hearts.
Even as we break the rules in order to uplift the vulnerable, and even as we ourselves cling to the rules in order to maintain our own comfort, we must remember this: although he preferred the disciples, Jesus did not love the Pharisees any less.
I find that fact to be both distressing and reassuring. I am distressed because it means I must look with love upon those whose actions I deplore. I am reassured because it means that my own deplorable actions have not made me unlovable.
… And I know this to be true, because no matter how many times my daughter fusses or clings or tries to sabotage her sister’s special time, I could only ever see her as my beloved.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a mom, writer, and friend of Sister Julia’s. She finds that putting a theological spin on her daughters’ behavior helps maintain her sanity.
“Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals.” – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 197)
Manure, straw, dust, animal hair, insects: all was known by Baby Jesus. Yes, God is in the mess of a stinky stable.
God is here, in the material world. All matter is amazingly made holy through this great event! Joy to the world for now we know: no mess is too much for God, for God is in the mess that intermingles with beauty and peace present in a barn, present in many corners of the world.
Today, God’s presence is known in the stink of human waste, in the villages living in garbage dumps and in the situations of people living in alleys. God is with refugee families fleeing from danger and now huddled together in make-shift tent homes seeking warmth and comfort. In our poverty, in our needs, God is with us.
God’s love is certainly revealed in the mess, the chaos, and in the interdependence of relationships. The birth of the Savior speaks clearly about God’s poverty and humility. God is a poor, vulnerable Child who cries and relies on his parents for every human need to be met. God’s love is known in the arrival and the giving, but also in the receiving, the needing and the empowering.
We are each called to be part of this holy and true story. We each have a part to play in helping God’s love to be known in every chaotic, cluttered corner of God’s Kingdom. We are called to help others and allow others to help and care for us. Love is alive in the giving and receiving, in the charity and humility. The animals and the infant in the stable show us how to participate in the holy activity.
By imitating the poor baby Jesus and admitting our need for one another we too can manifest God’s love in this holy and hurting world, where inequality and poverty is too extreme. The God of Love took on a humble, human form and came to free us! Let us respond to that Love and acknowledge our need to cooperate, to relate, to be humble and poor and care for one another.
Through God’s incarnation we are freed to recognize that great Truth that salvation history and the signs of our time proclaim. Indeed, God needs our humility, our poverty and our great “yes” to working with Love. As we cooperate with God’s great plan we ALL shall come to know the great depths of God’s peace, justice, and love. Let us share the good news of Love. Let us give and receive and celebrate the birth of Christ who has come, who is Emmanuel. Amen!
This past summer I had a profound experience that helped me to remember that heaven and earth are one.
I was in Assisi, Italy, on pilgrimage. I was there with other Franciscans who were preparing for (or discerning) final vows, and participating in a study pilgrimage sponsored by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs. As a Franciscan sister, it is understandable that my heaven-on-earth experience occurred in Assisi, as the village is holy ground for those of us in the Franciscan family.
After a morning Mass with our pilgrimage group at the tomb of St. Francis, I went into the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis. I then found myself praying with Giotto di Bondone’s vibrant frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Much was stirring in my heart as I examined the scenes depicting St. Francis’ life of conversion and penance.
Specifically, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my weak and imperfect …