How can I find God?

Stress warning: Content includes suicidal thoughts.

What would you say if a friend with no religious affiliation asked you the simple question: How can I find God?

This is the scenario posed to the young and the old, the famous and the not-famous and those of a variety of religious preferences who contribute their voices to the book “How can I find God? The Famous and Not-So-Famous Consider the Quintessential Question,” edited by Father James Martin, S.J.

The answers vary, as does the life experience of those who Martin questions. But a few themes do stand out, including the consideration that God is found in the people around us, the invisible love of God made visible, and in our own life experiences. The book also begs a poignant question: are we finding God or being found by God? Joan Chittister says, “No one can help a fish to find the ocean. The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.” She is proclaiming that God is all around us, already finding us, already in our grasp.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it more directly: “What do I do now that God has found me? … Such a God is not easily found because we cannot find that which as near to us as our next breath and as far from us as the silence that surrounds all language.” God, I know, has already found me, but may also remain elusive as mystery.

Maybe that’s because seeking and finding always go together. As Huston Smith says, “Finding God is not like finding a mislaid object, which ends the search.” Gregory of Nyssa put this point definitively: “To seek God is to find him; to find God is to seek him.”

I love these answers! They make me seek God even more. God has already found me and I wake up to that reality. I cannot find God like I find my lost hairbrush, because the mystery of God cannot be contained, and in the finding I discover more seeking. God is in the daily reality of my own life, in my particulars and in yours.

How would you answer this basic question: How can I find God?

I find God in my daily experiences and in the people around me, but I especially find God in suffering. Maybe suffering is the moment when I stop pretending everything is okay, become more honest and vulnerable and allow God to find me.

When I was 20, everything stopped making sense. I don’t remember the immediate event that caused it but I was curled up on the bed and I started to scream. I screamed so long that they called the college campus security to check on me. As I was screaming, I had a little conversation with God.

Me: God, I don’t think I can go on any longer. I think I need to die.

God: That way out is cheating. It’s not really an option.

Me: Then what can I do?

And then all the words stopped and I had a vision. I saw lava flowing freely. Then I saw lava crusted over. Like a video I had seen of a volcano exploding underwater, the fiery, red-hot river turned quickly to a black crust when it hit the cold water. The vision became an immediate knowing, the deepest truth I have ever known in my life. There is a place or time where God’s love flows endlessly. Here on Earth, that love gets blocked and crusted over. We are here on Earth to learn the not-so-simple lesson of how to love. This learning comes with the assurance that God’s love is holding us even through such pain.

Photo by Ben Klea on Unsplash

That truth has stayed with me ever since. When I get lost and discouraged, when my lava-love gets crusted over, I know God’s love is stronger, holding me ‘till I can get found again. The people who love me help me to see God, especially when I cannot do it on my own.

Once, when I was in a deep depression, a sister in my community threw a lifeline to me. Knowing that I was having a hard time loving myself or feeling love of any kind, she said, “Let us love you until you are able to do it yourself again.” She and my other sisters, my family and my friends loved me back to life. They became the face of God to me.

I think that Allison Janik, a seventh grader, says its best: “If you talk to babies and they don’t talk back, you still know they love you. I think that’s how it is with God.” That’s how it is with God: an endless love-like a river of lava, even when you can’t hear or feel that love. Like the fish in the ocean, God is all around us.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

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 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 her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

Light in the dark

In the Northern hemisphere, today is the shortest day of the year, the day when we experience the least sunlight.

We’re still in the season of Advent, the season of longing and hope. Even if the preparations and Christmas celebrations of this season have had you feeling busy and stressed, you still have time to tune into God’s graces, to notice how God is working in your struggles and joys.

To help you lean toward the light, to trust in its coming, I now offer you the top five Advent reflections from Messy Jesus Business since this blog began over nine years ago.

woman-lights-snow-christmas
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Most wonderful time of the year

by Sister Rhonda Miska (December 14, 2018)

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.  (Read more) 

Pregnant with hope

by Amy Nee-Walker (December 12, 2011)

When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.

Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. (Read more.) 

Craving a countercultural Christmas

By Julia Walsh (November 27, 2013)

My Christmas Every Day experiment is starting to get awkward.

Advent hasn’t even started yet, but Christmas’ crazed and over-weight relative Consumerism is already in town, on the news, and wasting your gasoline and money as he drives all around town shopping.

Meanwhile, I’m crowding with others in the cozy chapel, savoring peace and quiet and adoring God’s goodness while we pray for wisdom about how to revive radical Gospel living.

My Christmas ever day experiment is not about Santas, shopping, or catchy commercials. Yet, while these things become more prevalent, I am becoming afraid that any uttering of “Merry Christmas” that I make might be mistaken for an approval of the petty parts of the holiday happening prematurely. (Read More)

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

By Rhonda Miska (December 12, 2016)

“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? (Read More) 

Fear, darkness, and Advent

By Julia Walsh (December 15, 2016)

Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.

Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:

Do not be afraid. (Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)

Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. (Matthew 6:25)

Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)

Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.

Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today. (Read more)

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

May the Light of Christ transform you all, and give you great peace! Happy Solstice!

This Advent, may we make room

Photo credit: unsplash.com

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.]

 

Encouragement when the world feels like a mess

If you’re like me — and most people I know — the world feels like a mess.

Maybe you’re heartbroken and horrified by the latest news coming out of Syria, by the continued slaughter of human life.

Perhaps you’re worried about loved ones impacted by the fires in California — or you are one of the millions of people struggling to make it without clean air, electricity or safety. Maybe you’ve lost your home.

Or you may be the person dealing with internal trial: health problems, financial challenges or splintered relationships. Maybe someone you love has recently died and the grief has you frozen in sorrow.

It could be that your Gospel living — your faithful walk with Christ — has you meeting roadblock after roadblock. Each detour and struggle has you feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere or making any progress. You are losing hope and confidence that you’re on the right path, that God wants you to proceed. You don’t know if you have any steam left in you for loving others.

No matter which circumstances have you carrying a cross, here’s what I want to assure you today: you are not alone. Jesus is with you in all of it. The community of Christ cares for you.

To boost you up and impart consolation, I’m offering some inspiration in the mess. Here’s some goodness that keeps me going.

THE WORD OF GOD

Much of the Bible contains encouragement to persevere, to trust, to remain faithful and accept the cost of loving God and neighbor.

I’ve heard a lot of people proclaim that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” which is a cliché I dislike, because it suggests that we (individually) must handle the hard times, the painful parts of living. But such a sentiment doesn’t match what I have come to know: we are strengthened by God and community, we all are in need of help and support.

Here’s a verse that agrees: only if we rely on God, if we turn to Christ, will we be able to handle what’s tough:

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”1 Corinthians 10:13

Scripture reminds us that a paradox of the spiritual life (and discipleship, for that matter) is accepting hardships as part of the price we pay for growing closer to God; once we embrace our weakness, we’re able to know strength.

“Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Plus, Scripture assures us that God remains with us; God is the true source of our strength.

“I command you: be strong and steadfast! Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.” — Joshua 1:9

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

FROM THE MESSY JESUS BUSINESS ARCHIVES

A poem, “encouragement” (

overwhelmed, I wonder/gazing out the window, I sigh …”

“As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry. Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond.  The challenge is to respond with love.

On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament. I begged God for mercy. I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed. As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.

Soon after, I am with my students. I decide to be real with them. ‘I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets …'”

“The myth of the self made person and the true demand of discipleship” (

“You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person.”

“It’s not our job to change people”  (

“I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe.”

MUSIC

“Hope and healing play list”

“When we serve others we touch the wounds of Christ; we encounter the heartache and pain of our neighbors. When we read the news headlines right alongside the promises of Christ, it can be tempting to doubt that the Incarnation really changed things and made the world better. Our consciousness about global oppression and the weight of natural disasters can be crushing, discouraging.

One way that I keep my eyes open to the Light is to tune into songs that feed me with encouragement and strength. I want to have music in my head that keeps me singing with hopeful joy. I want to dance to beats that help me persevere and trust that God’s in charge, that the fullness of God’s goodness is on its way.”

Plus, much of the music by Liz Vice boosts my spirit. Here’s one gem for you:

THE BIBLE, AGAIN

Praying with the Gospel stories and the lives of the saints could also offer you a lot of inspiration and encouragement.

This lovely prayer video, made by my friend Susan Francois, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, reminds us of the Gospel call to persist for peace and justice:

Lastly, this passage from Romans reminds us that much goodness is ahead:

Brothers and sisters:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing
compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
For creation awaits with eager expectation
the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it,
in hope that creation itself
would be set free from slavery to corruption
and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.  
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

What gives you encouragement and hope in the mess? Share with other Messy Jesus Business readers in the comments below.

Missed connections and lonely souls

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.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

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.

And yet it is worth mentioning here that solitude can be healthy and sacred, that is is necessary for spiritual wellness. I can admit that I live in the tension between community and solitude.

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. 

Looking forward

I hear the longing for things to be as they once were.

I hear it when I sit with elders in a circle during an event at the spirituality center where I minister, when they express concern about the lack of young adults, youth and children in their churches. I hear it when I talk to catechists at area parishes and they share their hope that young adults who’ve left the church after confirmation will return once they miss the sacraments and want their children to learn the faith. I hear it when I listen to some elder sisters in my community, when they express sadness that there aren’t large groups of young women applying to join our congregation every year.

I get it. It’s normal to hold out hope that things will go back to what we once knew, what made sense to us. I understand.

Yet, I also struggle with the notion, with the longing for things to be as they once were.

I aim to lovingly listen when elders express disappointment about the era we’re in now. But I don’t tell them that I hear their grief…

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

Photo by Sandra Wattad on Unsplash

Strength in weakness

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  — 2 Corinthians 12:9

Lent is a time I focus on my weaknesses. I don’t like feeling weak; I don’t think very many people do. Some truths I have come to understand are that God uses my weaknesses and my struggles to teach me, help me grow. He draws me closer.  

Growing up, school was not easy for me. Because of Turner syndrome I was the short kid who looked a lot younger than her age, and I struggled to overcome a learning disability. I had a special education plan in school until 7th grade. Math and writing were subjects of great difficulty for me. Particularly in middle school, I remember sitting at the dining room table for hours with one of my parents (both teachers) who would attempt to help me with homework. Night after night I was frustrated (and I probably frustrated my parents too) as I attempted to complete assignments. I hated it, and I would get mad at my parents and at my teachers. Sometimes I would even get mad at God. I just wanted it to be easier.  

Eventually I found things I was good at: music, history and reading. With the help of my parents and some hard work, even math and writing got easier. My junior year of high school, I experienced job shadowing at my father’s school with the special education teacher there. I remember having so much fun with the students in this self-contained class and found that I enjoyed helping them; I could relate to them. I didn’t feel out-of-place or like I had to be anybody I wasn’t as I did in my own school.  

Around that same time I babysat for a family of four. I had to help the oldest girl with her homework, and I noticed she was having some of the same problems with multiplication that I did when I was her age. I immediately recognized the same frustration on her face that I had felt when I was learning multiplication. She had a hard time lining up the numbers. I had her turn the paper around so she could use the lines as columns. This was a trick my parents had taught me. It worked; she was able to do the problems after a few more examples. I wondered if she might have the same learning disability I had. When her mom came come home that night, I told her what I noticed. She said her daughter’s teacher wondered the same thing. Testing was done and a learning disability was diagnosed. The child was able to get some extra help. This was the first time I remember using my difficult experiences to help someone else. My weakness as a strength.  

two-women-green-shirts-sign
Sister Shannon Fox, right, and her co-worker, Sister Kim, show strong support for their students “Because Their Dreams Matter.”

Those early experiences helped to shape my desire to become a special education teacher.  I knew I loved working with kids, and I came to know I also had a special talent for teaching struggling students. One of my strengths as a teacher has been my ability to relate to my students’ difficulties. Not too long ago a student of mine (who has a learning disability) was frustrated with math. Sitting next to me he refused to do the work, telling me that algebra was pointless and that he didn’t need to learn it. I gave him a few minutes to settle down and helped another student. I walked back to his desk and offered again to help.

“I don’t know how to do this. I hate math,” he said quietly.

“You know, I remember feeling the same way about algebra,” I quietly shared with him. “I hated it.”  

“But you know how to do it, you’re a teacher,” he told me.  

“Yes I do, although it was very hard for me to learn at first. Then I discovered some tricks.”  

“It was hard for you?” he asked.  

“Definitely. I used to sit and cry about having to math homework when I was in school. Did you know I have a learning disability too?” I asked.  

“You do? But you’re a teacher,” he said.

“Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t mean I can’t do things,” I responded, smiling slightly. “It just means I might have to learn it a different way, or it might just take me a little longer.  It’s the same with you,” I encouraged. “Why don’t we try some of these problems, and I’ll show you some tricks.” He sat next to me and we worked through the problems together. He was much more positive and willing to work.  

In that moment I was actually grateful for my learning disability. I was grateful to be able to relate to his frustration and to show him how I learned. I have had dozens of similar experiences. My students know that I don’t judge them when they need some extra help, because they know I understand what it’s like to struggle. God used my struggles in school to teach me perseverance, to keep trying when things got hard and to empathize with those who are “different.” If you had told the 12-year-old me as I sat at the kitchen table crying about math homework that one day I would be grateful I had struggled, I’d probably have rolled my eyes. Having worked with students with special needs for 15 years now, I can say I am grateful for my weakness. That weakness has become a strength I’ve used to help my students.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister Shannon Fox

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.

Most wonderful time of the year

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”  

woman-lights-snow-christmas
Image courtesy pixabay.com

Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.

Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.

If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.   

As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.

If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.

If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.  

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Image courtesy jesus-passion.com

Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.

There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.

The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”

So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

Rhonda Miska is an apostolic novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters. After having served as a Jesuit Volunteer, in parish ministry and at retreat/spirituality centers, she is currently in ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. Sister Rhonda knows Sister Julia through Giving Voice, a group of Catholic sisters under the age of 50. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

An invitation

As we walk along, feet stir dust
and crack tiny twigs—once members
of a great tree they now lie as individuals
dismissed, forgotten.

The brightness of once-was is waning
as green fades into yellow and the decay
of vibrancy is apparent in the log, the stump,
the browning ferns drooping toward the ground.
The world is shifting in every direction.

An invitation opens on each side of the moment,
under the crunches of freshly decaying leaves,
in the whispers of opportunity.
Coming from beyond,
there is a chance for new unfolding.

What disturbances are broadening your knowing?
Toward what tunnel or cave are you being summoned?
What depth and darkness might you need to explore
in order to then walk more freely into new color,
into a brighter light?

The mystery summons you, needs you.
You are invited to be part of what is becoming.
Walk on.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Questions as a path to unity

Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.

Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.

He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.

I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)

I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.

I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.

Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.

Woman contemplates under the stars

Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?

What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?

Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.

But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.  2 Corinthians 4:7-10