Honoring all the souls

It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.

Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.

After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.

To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.

Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.

That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.

On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.

During this sacred month of November,  may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.

Through each gesture and prayer,  I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.

Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

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

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

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles
Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Rabble Rouser:

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

Walking for mercy, walking for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madison-Stations-Cross-walk-past-state-capital
Stations of the Cross walkers make their way past the Wisconsin State Capital (photo courtesy of Michael Krueger).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ALLELUIA in abundance

Happy Easter!!

We’re in the midst of the octave of Easter—eight days especially for rejoicing—and then we can celebrate the awesomeness of the Easter miracle for many more days.

I have a personality type that loves to be set to “fun” and “joy,” and I love to celebrate the goodness of God as much as possible.

Still, during this Octave of Easter days, I am making an extra effort to do special things each day to keep the Easter party going on. I made a bunny cake one day. I wore my Easter best dress another. Every day I am praying with praise and gratitude. I am refusing to fast, or diet, or deprive myself.

I am focusing on the freedom that comes from the resurrection. I am worshiping and praising God with joyful tunes and abundant Alleluias. This feels especially freeing after all the penance of Lent gave me such a new, fresh start.

God is so good! Let us praise Jesus and thank him over and over for all he is for us.

Amen!

Photo credit: http://www.puretravel.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Guide-to-How-Easter-is-Celebrated-Around-the-World.jpg

Easter Sunday: ordinary resurrections and trembling tombs

Alleluia!! Alleluia! He lives, and laughs death right in its face, saying,
Surprise, surprise! Nothing can kill this everlasting love!

Ordinary resurrections are everywhere.

There are glimpses of light where despair was once too intense for hope! The broken bone has healed completely. The child awoke from the terrifying coma. Your neighbor offered you an unexpected invitation to dinner. A relationship has been mended. Ugly habits have decreased; renewal found you in the Lenten desert. The tendency of that cruel colleague to snap at you decreased. The struggling student earned a high grade. New, green life is bursting forth through dismal ground.

Amazingly, the love that has caused this freedom made tombs of all sorts tremble.

The grumpy, over-stressed grandmother lets out a big belly laugh. The violent mind experiences a moment of truth and compassion. The refugee child squeals with joy, seeing the father from which she was separated. Tears fall down cheeks while the family, once divided, laughs over an Easter feast, forgetting what caused the rift between them. Joy beams through border fences, and all are welcomed to the feast.

 

Our awesome God is victorious, and today is a day to celebrate!!!

Happy Easter, Messy Jesus Business readers!

"open tomb" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“open tomb” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

An empty tomb

Happy Easter!

On this Holy Saturday the Easter story, read from the Gospel of Mark, left me more confused than comforted. This is how Mark tells it: early on the third morning, three women come to the tomb with spices to care for Jesus’ corpse. They worry about how they’re going to move that impossible stone. But what do they find? An empty tomb. No angel. No Jesus. No blinding light or writing in the sky. Just a man in white telling them that Jesus is gone, that he has been raised and has gone before them to Galilee. What do the women do? “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

Sculpture image printed with permission of artist M.J. Anderson
Image of sculpture (created for Church of the Resurrection, Solon, Ohio) printed with permission of artist M.J. Anderson

And that’s it. The very last words in our earliest written Gospel. “Afraid.” What are we supposed to do with that? Well, usually we skip over it. We prefer the confident glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John. We just don’t know what to do with an empty tomb and silent women that run away. The early Gospel writers even tacked on an ending (Mark 16:9-20) crafted from bits of other Gospel passages, to make people feel better. In this added ending there is a resurrected Jesus standing at the tomb. The disciples still struggle to believe but at least Jesus is visible. What are we to do with silence, and darkness, and an empty tomb?

But what if the Gospel of Mark was meant to end that way? What if the empty tomb itself is enough proof that Jesus is raised from the dead? What if the women’s reaction was actually an expression of faithful witness? What if it is all right that sometimes you cannot find words for the “bewildering” mystery of God? What if to flee the tomb in “utter amazement” is a legitimate way to live our Gospel faith? What if we just speak really poor Greek (which definitely describes me) and the word translated here as “fear” is more accurately and consistently described as God-inspired awe?

Mary, Mary, and Salome did not fail. Because, actually, they did tell someone the good news of Jesus’ victory over death. They told it with their lives. How do we know that? Because the church started, which is something the first readers of Mark would have known for sure. They were the church. They were gathering in homes and telling these mind-blowing stories, breaking bread, healing the sick, and willing to risk their lives for this Jesus they talked about. Sometimes, they even died for him—just ask our brothers and sisters in Syria, Kenya, and Libya what they know about that.

What is enough for me to believe that Jesus has smashed death to pieces? I do not need to see his risen body in front of me. I do not even need any archeological or scientific proof. The overpowering awe that shook those three women on that early morning still reverberates in my own small heart. Their utter amazement was a spark that started a wildfire that cannot be stopped. I know Jesus is alive. I know that he brings freedom, light, and truth to all, usually in unexpected ways. As unexpected as an empty tomb. That is enough.

Little Resurrections

Since Sunday, I have been trying to pay attention to the little resurrections in the world around me.  How is God at work around me? How do I say Yes to the Risen Christ?  What is happening in my heart?

I feel renewed. I have been transformed by God’s grace. Each day God is working, letting Life have the last word. Alleluia!