I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
It all started when a friend, who ministers in New York, texted me to say that someone in his parish was being tested for the coronavirus (or Covid-19) and everyone who attended liturgy with them could be quarantined. I was alarmed. I realized that the epidemic was no longer abstract and distant. I realized that the time to make decisions had arrived.
I muttered some prayers and then I went online and began reading the news. Updates from the WHO and CDC helped me understand how quickly the virus is spreading, how highly contagious it is, and that it had just been named a pandemic. I also read the recommendation that those with lung disease not venture out for any reason.
Lung disease. My heart sank as I realized I was one of those persons; I am asthmatic. And I live with a sister who is an octogenarian. I felt a responsibility to stay in. So, I told the sisters I live with that I wouldn’t be joining them at the Catholic Sister Week event that night and canceled plans. I hunkered down and settled into acceptance.
Since then, the impacts of this crisis are being felt by nearly everyone. Most of us will not be able to worship with our faith communities this weekend. Many people can’t receive the Blessed Sacrament at Holy Mass. (Catholic services have been canceled all over the country.) The words of Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2007, come to mind: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”
Throughout the United States much has changed quickly. Many events, major and small, have been canceled. Classrooms are now virtual. There’s a shortage of supplies. A national emergency has been declared. Much has come to a standstill. And many people are feeling frantic, vulnerable and fearful. It’s a wild time we’re in.
Wild like the Lenten desert, like the land of desolation where Jesus went to pray and fast before he began his public ministry. (Mark 1:12-13)
We are called to accept the reality of the time we’re in and face unmet desires. We have arrived in the Lenten desert by way of a pandemic.
The Lenten desert is harsh and wild. Much feels unfamiliar and frightening; the sun burns, the water is scarce. You don’t know if you’ll have what you need, or if you will survive.
In the Lenten desert, we thirst for the Truth, for comfort, and peace. We crave it; we’re hungry. We starve for connection, for love, hope and joy. As we do, we can marvel at the mystery, at our shared humanity and common vulnerabilities. We are able to let go of what is beyond our control. We all need God.
In a pandemic and in this sacred season, we can let the silence and solitude speak to us; we can each listen deeply to God. We can pray. We can meditate. We can read Scripture and do spiritual reading. Once we turn inward, we could discover that the desert landscape is beautiful and full of life too.
In this pandemic and in this desert, we discover a sacredness in the slowing, an offering of time. Each of us are given an opportunity to steward the openings we’ve been given. We can notice what is a gift. We can delight in a time to deepen our bond with God.
Surprise, here’s that Lenten retreat you were dreaming about. Here’s that pause you were wanting when ashes were pressed into your forehead and you heard that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
As you pray through this Lenten pandemic, I invite you to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit deep in your heart. Remember that Jesus was ministered by angels in the desert; keep in mind that God is also caring for you in this sacred time.
As you open your heart and mind to love, to the challenge of trust and transformation, may you come to a greater awareness of how deeply loved you truly are. You are sacred. You are valued. You are not alone. You are a beautiful and beloved child of God.
Let’s remember that we’re made for community, that this is the Christian way. Let’s reach out to our friends and neighbors; let’s utilize technology for sacred relationships, for community building. Let’s pray together and help each other through our struggles. Let’s encourage one another and be the beacons of hope that others need to see.
Then, united in love and filled with God’s grace, we will all emerge again one day, more fully alive and in tune with the way of Jesus Christ. We’ll be stronger and healthier. We’ll be more grounded and clear headed. We’ll be able to serve with greater courage and love.
This is a time for renewal, preparation and restoration. This is a holy time.
Here are some offerings for you. Think of this list like finding a well bursting of life-giving water, strengthening you for your time in the desert:
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Throughout the United States we will honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a holiday next week.
Some of us will attend parades or prayer services to feed our souls with the words of good speakers and the sound of great music. Many will participate in the National Day of Service. Others will watch television specials or talk to children about the goodness of cultural diversity. Maybe we’ll eat soul food or listen to Gospel music. Or perhaps we’ll learn about the current landscapes of inequality and injustice and loudly say “Amen” at the end of every prayer for social change.
Yet, I imagine that many (most?) of us will likely let the day go by without much consideration of why Dr. King was martyred, why we’re honoring him. Some of us will savor the benefit of a three-day weekend by shopping, binge-watching and catching up on sleep.
I get it. Our lives are packed and we keep a busy pace. Laboring for the reign of God with all our might in our little corners of the world wears us out. It takes a lot from us to work to make peace and justice as common as air. We’re tired, we’re spent. We need rejuvenation to fight the good fight day in and day out.
Yes, we need rest and renewal. But I would like to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not the day. That’s what the weekly sabbath is for. (Remember that commandment God gave us?)
So, here’s what I propose. It’s what I plan to do. I will empower King’s legacy, enable it to change me this time around. I will carry it with me through 2020 with less inadequate activisim and more openness to conversion. And, I invite you to join me in my simple plan.
Step 1.) I will read and reflect on one of Dr. King’s writings or speeches. This might be his Letter from Birmingham Jail or his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. If I can’t read the speech carefully and studiously, I’ll listen to it. And, if I don’t have the time or energy to read an entire speech, I will read previous Messy Jesus Business posts dedicated to his legacy or at least consider some of the following quotes on war and peace (included here):
More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations. Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. “Don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have the compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Strength to Love, 13 April 1960
I am convinced that love is the most durable power in the world. It is not an expression of impractical idealism, but of practical realism. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, love is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love. — Martin Luther King, Jr., 1957
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 31 March 1968
Step 2.) I will imagine a society constructed on the principles that King proclaimed and notice where I am challenged and disturbed. (After all, if I want to change the world, I must start by changing myself!)
I will pray, journal and/or do a lot of thinking related to King’s vision, looking to see how I get in the way of peace and justice flourishing. Here’s some questions I might start with: How would the circumstances of 2020 look differently if we took the principles of nonviolence to heart? What role could I play to dismantle racism and inequality? How do I need to change my mind, heart and behaviors so that the life I am living demonstrates that I truly believe love is the strongest power? How is the Spirit inviting me to grow and change so that I help create a world where there is more peace and justice for people of every race, class and creed?
Step 3.) In response to my reflection, I will envision myself changing my behaviors and then make a plan.
Perhaps I could explore new groups to join (like I found on this website and this one too), find upcoming meetings or calls to action and offer my help. (I’ve attended many events over the years, but have rarely offered more than my participation.) Maybe I need to learn more about issues like gentrification or white privilege that currently plague the poor and marginalized. Maybe I’ll write the president or call my legislators. I’ll look at my calendar and give myself a deadline for a new action.
Whatever I do, I’ll pray about it. I’ll invite the Spirit to guide me, work through me and show me where I am being called. Because however I am called to change it will be a struggle. I need God’s help. We all do.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
Make sure to put your own oxygen mask on first. When a plane is experiencing difficulties and the oxygen masks drop, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can put on the masks of others. You need to always make sure to take care of yourself first. — self-help speakers everywhere
I’ve been keeping track, and in roughly the last three years, at conferences, on retreats, and in a homily or two, I have heard the above “oxygen mask” analogy — a self-care mantra — 13 times. And every time I do, it grates on me.
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. — Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 8:34-35)
If there is one major thesis about self-care in the Gospel, it is this. No one can do it alone. We believe that Jesus Christ became man and died for us because we could not save ourselves. Before that he walked among the poor, healing the sick and lifting up the lowly because they were too broken to heal themselves and too beaten down to lift themselves up.
But if you listen to contemporary culture, even among ministers, the message is always this: don’t forget about number one. Don’t get stressed out. Don’t sacrifice your well-being. If someone else is struggling, well, you can try to help to a point but ultimately, they need to make time for themselves.
This message does not work for any of the real problems facing us. That advice does not help the truly oppressed.
What about the elderly gentleman at our parish whose wife now has dementia? He can’t care for her, can’t navigate the medical bureaucracy, and is becoming increasingly enfeebled himself.
What about the tragic, uncontrollable epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings that are causing our children, as they practice active shooter drills in school, to wonder if today is their last?
These situations do not call for self-care. They require the help of others, of those outside the situation, to enter into the fray. The women in Vietnam need for us to stop buying products from the companies that enslave them and for us to care more about them and their plight than we do about looking good. The gentleman at our parish needs his friends to bring him meals and take him to doctors’ appointments and to tend to his needs. In the wake of the recent shootings in New Zealand, a young Muslim from the area, Nakita Valerio, posted a quick message that soon went viral: “Shouting ‘self-care’ at people who actually need ‘community care’ is how we fail people.” I couldn’t agree with her more.
We need each other. We cannot solve our biggest problems alone. When we are strong, we need to truly exert ourselves in the causes of justice and wear ourselves out, even hurt ourselves in the struggle. And when we are weak, when we can’t do it alone, we should pray to God that we have communities that will lift us up in turn.
In the lowest moments of my life, I did not need a day at the spa — I needed my friends to help me, to save me. I was lucky, privileged and blessed that they did. We need to create such communities for all.
This last year in youth ministry was hard. One of our students suddenly passed away from Leukemia. He was a wonderful and charismatic boy, and he left many grieving friends, myself included. Another student tried to kill himself. Between struggles with drugs, sex, parents divorcing, bullying and all sorts of other upheavals, it was an unusually grief-filled year. I was unusually grief-filled as a result. There were nights when I couldn’t sleep, entire nights when I prayed for my kids. And God and I talked about a lot of things. But you want to know one thing He never said to me? If I can, for a moment, presume to know the will of the Almighty and hear His voice, I will go out on a limb and say not once did I ever see in scripture or hear from the Lord, “Keep your distance. Don’t love them too much. This is their problem, not yours. Take care of yourself.”
As the year went on, I found my daily prayers changing. On Sundays, the day most filled with youth activities at our parish, I used to pray for strength to make it through unscathed. I soon realized that was not possible; that, actually, being invulnerable requires being very disinterested and ultimately not very Christ-like.
For to be vulnerable means to be woundable (from the Latin vulnus, meaning wound), and what is the story of the incarnation and passion if not that God himself was willing to be wounded, indeed to die, for the good of those he loved? So now I pray, “God, feel free to allow me to be wounded in your service today. Feel free to wear me out and use me up. Just promise you’ll heal me when it’s over.”
It’s not that I like being hurt. It’s not even that I don’t think self-care is important (even Jesus took his time in solitude to pray and prepare). It’s just that maybe we are focusing on it too much. Maybe we’ve taken it too far, believe in it too much, idolize it. Believing in the cross means we can’t expect to be well all the time, and believing in the resurrection means we can’t expect to be entirely well at all in this life. We should expect to be wounded, for a while at least, just as much as we should long to be made whole.
So, might I propose a better analogy? Perhaps we should think of these ubiquitous oxygen masks, not like the ones in airplanes but the ones attached to the oxygen tanks that firefighters strap on before they race into a blaze.
Okay, fair enough; put your oxygen mask on first.
But the “oxygen” is not your own self-interested little ritual of wellness — it’s a real, lived connection to Christ and to a community that has your back. That is what you need to survive. But then, once that mask is on, go into the blaze. Go into the flames and the heat and the danger of the world’s real injustices to bring that connection to others.
Because your brothers and sisters can’t breathe. They are burning up. They need the help of allies, activists, friends, servants, saints — whole communities of them because if they could have done it on their own they already would have.
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 that 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.
The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.
One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.
Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.
Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.
I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”
Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.
I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.
The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.
This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:
1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.
2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.
3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.
Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.
Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.
“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”— “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)
Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.
We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.
Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.
Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.
As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge, we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:
133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).
134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.
135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.
Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.
As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.
Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here. Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.
. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.
Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .
As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.
No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.
I spent part of last night cleaning and peeling a recently harvested pile of wormy rutabagas with another sister. We probably ended up having to compost at least half of what had been pulled up from the soil, because some sort of creatures had created little homes in the vegetables. The waste was certainly disappointing and unfortunate but mostly it all felt very natural — like a healthy part of giving seeds to the earth, tending the soil and then pulling forth food many months later.
Afterwards I noticed that my hands smelled earthy, much like the crispy leaves and the chilly autumn dampness that has arrived in the air.
With such sights and smells in my consciousness, I began to think about all the death and decay surrounding us in the midst of this autumn season. And, the natural ebb and flow of life, of struggle.
It is inevitable, isn’t it? Being human means we have downs, we suffer, we feel anguish. We deal with the weight of despair. No matter how much we try to avoid the cross, reality teaches us that the muck of change is inevitable. Under the weight, our moods and attitudes can falter; we can get stuck in lament. How, then, are we to remain available to lovingly, joyfully serve others? How can we continue to act with kindness when wallowing in despair seems like all we are capable of?
A few months ago, I read this blog post by Sarah Bessey about finding time, energy and inspiration to write. Since then I have been thinking about tip #5 on the list: “Fill the Well.” As she wrote it: What brings you alive? What clears your mind? What fills your soul? Do those things instead of the other things. Take time to figure it out – your list will be different than mine. Write down a few things that you can turn towards to fill the well. You can’t write from an empty well and so whenever you can, fill your well.
Here’s what I am learning: we must not only fill our wells to serve and witness, we must tend to our wells. Each of us has a God-given, wide-open space; the vessel that contains the life-giving water, the container that holds the elements for our strength. We must know this part of ourselves and know what is really needed so that our wells maintain their shape and abilities. How is your well constructed? Is it chipping and weak in a certain space? How deep is it? What elements of Spirit flow through this space inside of you? How does your well nourish you and provide hope?
What sort of songs must you sing to tend to this sacred space in you? Which Scripture passages will fill you with the strength you need to persevere, to continue serving?
No matter how death and decay may threaten to endanger us, let us remember that God is with us, eager to tend to our wells and fill us with great grace and strength. After all, God has conquered death and is ready every minute to make all things new! Amen.
God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging.
– Psalm 46:2-4
Mercy is the point where God’s love meets the needs of the world. When Pope Francis opened this Year of Mercy he stated, In this Jubilee Year, let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of casting open the doors of his heart and of repeating that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. Let God surprise us with deep and extravagant mercy!
My tendency is to have abundant mercy for others, but struggle to truly be gentle and kind to myself. However, over ten years of intrusive thoughts of self-harm have taught me some serious spiritual lessons.
Here are a few:
Having a thought does not make it true
I may have the same thought of self-harm every day, hundreds of times a day for the rest of my life, and nothing will ever make that thought true. Sometimes we think every thought that goes through our head is a missive from God. But they are not. Some thoughts are temptations, distractions and lies that we tell ourselves. Even when I believe I am precious to and beloved by God, my thoughts don’t always reflect it. I must choose how I react to my thoughts, which lead to…
Neither repress nor obsess
When I either avoid my thoughts or ruminate on them like a favorite pet, things only get worse. Instead, I choose to “ride the wave.” When difficult thoughts and emotions threaten to overwhelm me I watch them come and, eventually, go. I observe without judgment. I name them. “Hmmmm. Looks like I’m having a self-harming thought. Yep. There it is. What do I need to do right now to be merciful to myself and remember I am beloved?” Either repressing or obsessing just gives power to the thoughts. By staying in the middle way the thoughts dissolve on their own.
I can’t. God can. Let God.
This summary of the first three steps of the 12 Step Spirituality Program helps millions in recovery for whatever addiction or habit gets you most stuck. “God, I’m not in control of my life, but I know that you’ve got this and I’m going to give my will, my struggles and my life to you.” Sometimes handing it over to God is an every moment thing. Just this one day, this hour, this moment. As we say in recovery “I can do something this moment that would daunt me if I thought I had to do it for a lifetime. Right now, I give it all to God.”
People are kind, even when they say stupid things (which they often do without trying to).
When I talk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed. I learn how each person in my life walks with me. Some people can listen, some people can just be. Some people have never really dealt with someone who has intense mental health issues before. One sister in my congregation just sends me a kind note with a bag of herbal tea now and then, and I know she cares. People care for me and don’t want to see me in pain, but they don’t always know what to do. That’s okay. Just let them love you and be present in whatever way is most respectful to both of you. One person said to me, “How can you have those thoughts and be a Catholic Sister? Don’t you believe in God?” Well, yes. And that leads to…
Jesus doesn’t always take the pain away, but He always holds me in my suffering.
Sometimes I can believe I’m a precious child of God lovingly created for all eternity, other times I cannot. But God never abandons me. Through every pain and ugly thought and wish to die my sweet Christ surrounds me in love. Whether I feel it or not. Recently in my prayer I heard Christ say, “I am sorry you are suffering. You have everything you need. I love you. Let my love be sufficient.” When I finished praying the thoughts of self-harm were still there, but I knew I was not alone.
God. God. God.
Persistent thoughts of self-harm have taught me to be willing to be willing. I need to open my hands and let go of the illusion of control, every day. Every moment. I can:
Give everything to God.
Increase my self-care.
Decrease my stress (which often involves hard choices and saying no to worthy commitments).
I can do all of this right and the suffering may not go away. On the spiritual journey, it’s not about getting it right. We are each doing the best we can. I open my hands. I breathe deeply, declare my dependence on God and am simply willing to be willing to try again. And in that moment I find a God of love, grace and power who never leaves me alone, even in my darkest nights.
About The Rabble Rouser
Sister Sarah Hennessy 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, playing guitar 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.
So, this week some depression symptoms have come back.
Fatigue, heaviness, a dull pull at the sides of my mouth, a silent scream in my throat, anxiousness, and a few intrusive thoughts of self-harm.
But, I’m a veteran. I know what to do.
Give it to Jesus.
Pull out my toolbox of skills. For me it includes mindfulness, grounding, centering, exercise, contemplation, affirmations, walking with mantras, pushing on walls, calling friends, journaling, healthy eating, support groups, therapy, spiritual direction, and being honest with myself and all my support people.
A few days ago when it was going a bit rough, Jesus and I sat down and had a talk about it. I’m struggling to break out of old coping mechanisms and make a new choice. It feels healthy and I know it’s the right thing to do but dude—it is still physically and emotionally hard! Jesus said to me, “I got you. I know you can do this. You have the external support and the internal resilience to make this change at this time. And if you don’t, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You didn’t do it wrong before, and you don’t have to do it that way again.” With those words, I felt both freedom from the pain of my past and joy in choices of the future.
For me, my struggles with mental health have always had a spiritual component, and often that aspect’s ignored by the community around me. Some friends and I wrote up a list of what we consider to be the “Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks.” The term “mad folks” is a way to talk back the labels put on us as stigmas behind our backs and claim our own identity in the world, similar to when the word “Black” became more common for African-Americans. I also prefer the terms “mental (sk)illness” or “neurological diversity.” It’s a way of claiming the gifts of the reality that we live with; not pathologizing our identity.
Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks include:
the right to have a “dark night of the soul” without one’s experience being attributed to a brain disease or a disordered personality.
the right to speak of one’s experiences without fear of harm or recrimination by authorities.
the right to not have our spirituality viewed as a product of our diagnosis or as otherwise pathological.
the right to appropriate support during times of spiritual emergency.
the right to claim our mad gifts within a spiritual community or context.
the right to be reverenced as a person of dignity.
the right to companionship and affirmation on the spiritual path.
What if these rights were all just universally embraced in every place of worship and spiritual community? What a wild and beautiful world that would be! I dream a place where it’s okay to think you are the Messiah. Where walking in the void of darkness and the fear of demons are believed. Where the daily perseverance to get through a day is not disregarded, but honored and celebrated.
Our “mental health” system may be broken beyond repair. Far too many go without the basic care they need. When I moved to La Crosse, I had to wait seven months for an appointment with a provider to manage my medications. Globally, the situation is even worse. Our old ways of coping and hiding people away just don’t work.
I have found little glimmers of hope and a community of people just like me, dreaming wildly and working for change. Internet community The Icarus Project tries to help us navigate “the space between brilliance and madness” and “transform ourselves by transforming the world around us.” The support groups and daily skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy focus on mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and relationship skills. This is the super tool box of concrete skills that make life worth living again! Also, I have found regular attendance in a Depressed Anonymous group and working the program’s 12 Steps a real way to live hopefully and turn it all over to Jesus, my Higher Power. (I connect with Emotions Anonymous too.)
And, my FSPA congregation is actively participating in the nation-wide Campaign to ChangeDirection to raise awareness of the five signs of suffering and to deter future suicides.
We never walk alone. For me, my mental (sk)illness requires the constant companionship of Jesus, my faith community, recovery community, and all my loved ones. We dream a new world. We dream hope and live bravely into a new tomorrow, each and every day.