It’s a gray day, one of those types where the clouds hang heavy and seem to block out all sunlight. Inside a cozy lamp-lit room, I am sitting in a circle of ministers training to be spiritual directors and practicing the art of listening. Around the circle, person after person tells a story from their life that is personal.
With each telling, I notice layers of transformation and transition; I hear about the wonder of discovery and the lightness of hope. A phrase comes to mind: the goodness of gray. I jot the words into my notebook and open my heart wide. Although this happened weeks before Advent, “the goodness of gray” remained a constant suggestion, a companion in the season of searching, longing and waiting.
We are people who long for simplicity, who often ache for clearly defined borders and lines. Even though we may know that complexity and conversion is healthy and natural, we are comfortable with what’s predictable, what we know, what feels safe.
There may have been times when answers were easy, when we knew what to expect. For some it was the patterns of childhood, the days of easy answers and comfort zones. For others, we found solace in the rituals of our religion or what was considered proper and polite. Our memories might be hazy, but nostalgia convinces that there was a time when much stood strong on solid ground. Elected leaders compromised. Polarities were unusual. Religious life was defined. Democracy was functional. Unity and peace were valued and Churches were places of refuge and calm.
Now, we don’t know about much. Nearly everything we are familiar with — from the structures of Church and society, to technology and the ecosystems sustaining us — seems to be in transition, in flux. What we forget, though, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Carl McColman’s blogat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
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.]
In the book “A Wrinkle in Time,” Mrs. Whatsit sighs and tells the children, “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
Last weekend, the global community of Christian writers quaked in shock as we absorbed the news that the influential author Rachel Held Evans, 37, had died. I didn’t know her but I admired her from afar and have had her four books on my “hope to read soon” pile for some time. The grief is heavy and hard.
And then, this week’s school shooting in Colorado took another young saint, Kendrick Ray Castillo, away from us much too soon. I’m horrified and heartbroken that school shootings are so common in the United States that we are nearly numb to the news. God have mercy on us for the wrongs that we accept. It’s awful that we allow young lives to end without alarm. It’s more than shameful.
Meanwhile, my friends in Cameroon try to survive horrific violence. Weather patterns, habitats, landscapes and populations are shifting. After being attacked in sanctuaries — places of worship — human bodies are bloodied and hurting. People are running for their lives. Families are being torn apart. Children are going hungry. Our loved ones are sick, some die way too soon. And, it’s hard to know what’s happening to democracy … but it doesn’t seem good either. The litany of heartbreak could be much longer; this is only a little list of what is making me feel so sad.
I turn to God and pray “WHY?” As I do, I often find myself remembering Mrs. Whatsit’s words. “Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
If often seems to me that everything is in flux around us, and the transition doesn’t feel good. I’m confident that much of the turmoil, loss and pain is a result of rapid change and our inability to adjust, allow and accept how newness is emerging, even when we don’t feel ready. The shifts are hard and we feel lost in it all, so we grasp for what we can control: our convictions and tribal tendencies. Some cling to the cross, while others cling to their guns. We look around for like-minded folks who can reinforce our opinions and ideas but, as we end up in warring camps, this isn’t helpful either. God help us.
As we bicker and brawl, let us not lose sight of the paradox of Christian discipleship: God asks for our trust and hope, while we each play our small, merciful part.
Yet we wonder why. It’s only natural for us to have many questions, to hunger for explanations when we’re disturbed by the chaos and turmoil and how quickly the world is changing. When everything from our values to our comfort zones seems to be up for grabs, we pray over and over. “WHY?!”
“Explanations are not easy when they are about things for which your civilization still has no words.”
I am reminded over and over that I must resist the temptation to keep God in a neat and tidy box. I must not make God into an image I like, I must get to know God and allow myself to be made into God’s image and likeness. I must avoid trying to subject my suggestions to the Creator of the universe, upon the Keeper of mystery. I must remember that I am only a small human who has no idea what the big picture is, who can’t even guess how the mystery might unfold. It’s not my job to know what God is up to.
My job is to remain faithful to the Gospel, to the insistence from Jesus that we build communities based on mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. Each day I need to show up and do my part. I need to love the people that God puts in my path, live simply, serve joyfully and pray deeply. I need to broaden my awareness and deepen my contemplation. And through these acts, I hope that I am helping to build up what’s meant to be and tearing down what’s corrupt and destructive.
I have to trust that God is in control. I have to trust that God is with us in the heartache and pain of chaos and confusion. I have to trust that God’s taking care of the big picture. I have to listen to the Spirit and allow God to make all things new.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. — Isaiah 43:19
Maybe, when it comes to being a faithful Christian, it’s not our job to understand. Rather, we get to keep showing up ready to love and lean on each other. It’s the only way I know how to move forward into the mystery, the only way I know how to get through the pain. With all of you.
Lately, falling has been on my mind. The season for this is approaching, as leaf after leaf will soon let go and make its journey downwards, trusting the winds to take them where they need to go.
I have been thinking about the sensation of falling, but not for the reasons you might expect. It has little to do with the approach of the season of autumn, or my clumsy nature. (I’m no stranger to falls of the physical sort!) Rather, falling is on my mind because I am in transition. I recently moved into a whole new ministry and living situation, so I have been adjusting to and enjoying my new environment. During the first week here, I awoke in the dark of the night with the thought that …
Yesterday I finished packing up my classroom. A somber weight pressed upon my shoulders as I cleaned out my desk, dusted shelves and put books and picture frames in boxes.
In the silence I prayed in gratitude for the room that has held so much life and energy for me during the past four years. I smiled as I thought of the love, learning, laughter, singing, dancing, and playful energy that the four walls had held. I sighed with relief to know that I will no longer have endless piles of papers to grade or have to deal with the pressure of an academic calendar. Sadness colored the blank walls with the intensity of letting-go.
I am not sure if I’ll ever teach in a classroom again. I am not sure what the future holds. I don’t know what God has in store for me.
I know some of the general facts, of course. This fall I will begin serving as a program and retreat presenter at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin. I’ll live with some sisters from my congregation in the Spirituality Center’s lodge on Trout Lake and have the opportunity to connect with God alive in creation each and every day. I’ll continue writing and studying, hoping to complete the master’s degree I have been working on and increase my creative writing endeavors.
And, I know I’ll continue to live my life as an FSPA and that I’ll offer myself for the service of God and God’s people. I know I’ll remain connected to my family and friends. And, I believe God will continue to guide me and show me the way.
I am not afraid of the future. I am encouraged by the past. I am challenged to trust in the Mystery and remain faithful to the Truth of Love.
God’s invitation to change ministries and move on came to me like a whisper, like a gentle nudge felt both in the exterior of community life and in the solid feelings of my body and heart. Mid-Lent I was at a meeting with some of my sisters, a discernment circle. I told the other sisters that I thought I’d make a change in ministry within a couple years and read aloud a list of the things I really hoped for in wherever God called me to next: more time in nature and for writing, ministry in an area of high need, service to the poor and marginalized, a strong community life. I had all sorts of ideas about how this could look, but hadn’t even thought about moving further north and into a largely rural area.
Our God is totally a God of surprises though, and once dreams are announced to a loving community one can let go and let the Spirit show the way. After I shared my general dream in that discernment circle a couple of sisters from Marywood spoke about the needs in the Superior diocese. As they spoke, one of the FSPA I am the closest to shot me a “Are-you-hearing-this?” look that I tried to ignore. Within days, more occurrences served as glaring road signs directing me to let go of the timeline I’d created and accept that it was actually the best time for me to move onward. When I prayed about what might happen, I heard encouragement to ask the sisters at Marywood about possibilities as soon as I could. A deep peace warmed my gut and my thoughts were immediately reframed. Before I could completely catch on, the Spirit blew through and stirred up my entire life.
When things shifted for me, I was in the midst of teaching my students about the epistles of the New Testament. I spoke to my students about St. Paul’s travels and itinerant, missionary life. I described how he went into some cities–such as Corinth, Phillipi, Ephesus, and Thessalonica–for no more than a couple years and established a strong Christian community centered on Love and service in a very relational way. He would preach in synagogues and minister and offer a loving presence straight out of the store where he mended tents and in the homes of those who hosted him. He was effective as a minister because he was excellent as a communicator and relationship builder. He was a master of maintaining relationships once he transitioned onward.
I am challenged by St. Paul’s witness in the early Church and encouraged to remain faithful to the Franciscan traditions of itineracy, preaching and poverty. I hope to maintain my own movement proclaiming the goodness of God, detached from taking possession or ownership of any particular place, ministry or group of people.
Nothing is mine. All is in the hands of God. There is a great sense of liberation in knowing this. And freedom permits me to joyfully express gratitude:
I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the Gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception,to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. –Philippians 1:3-11
I am not sure if I’ll ever return to teaching in a high school classroom or how exactly I will be of service to God and God’s people in the long-range future. I leave, though, with faith that the future is in God’s hands.
No matter how we are nudged and encouraged, I believe that God can shine goodness into any situation and the challenge of letting go.
Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage-of-sorts to The Simple Way, a Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia described as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.”
Like many thousands of Christian millenials, I have been interested in The Simple Way community ever since I first devoured this book about eight years ago.
In The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne describes an inspiring type of Christian living: a dedicated, communal, prayerful, life of radical simplicity and activism inflamed and inspired by the Gospel.
Some time after first reading his book I remember writing Shane Claiborne a letter thanking him for his work and sharing with him how it impacted me. At the time I was new to my Franciscan community and feeling confused while I discerned commitment. I was starting to become aware of the community’s shadow sides as my idealized sense of who we are waned away. I felt uncertain whether staying with my Franciscan community would free to me to live the way I felt called to live. Plus, I was struggling with generational challenges and the impact of joining a group with a long history. Honestly, I was tempted to leave religious life and instead join a movement with the freshness and ecumenical energy like The Simple Way community that Shane describes in his book.
I must have written my thoughts all out in my letter to Shane because I still remain thankful for the gift of his response as his encouragement to be Franciscan ultimately contributed to my decision to stay with FSPA (and propelled me toward my perpetual profession of vows five weeks ago!). Here is an excerpt from the letter I still treasure and pray with:
“I admire your hope and your discontentment–and certainly the Church needs both—it is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders … Our communities and ‘new monasticism’ has its charm and fresh charism but it also has this challenge and vulnerabilities … I certainly will keep you in my prayers as you continue the work of Francis and Clare and ‘repairing the ruins of the Church.’ You are a gift to the FSPA …”
Since that first correspondence, I have remained a fan and follower of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. I have heard Shane speak in person a couple of times and I continue to be inspired and influenced by his writing and passion for being a neighbor and disciple of Jesus. I have tried to keep up with all the happenings in The Simple Way, but never before made it there for a visit.
So when a wedding brought me to Philadelphia at the end of June, I reached out to The Simple Way community to see if I could stop by. I didn’t expect to actually see or spend any time with Shane (he’s kind-of famous) but I was really interested in the current state of The Simple Way and how God was working with and through their presence in the Kensington neighborhood.
I was so excited when I found The Simple Way in Philadelphia! I really felt like I was arriving on Holy Ground, a place of faith and wonder.
There, I was hosted by Caz Tod-Pearson (the director of the organization) who had recently returned from maternity leave.
She and I had a deep conversation about The Simple Way story. She told me about the ups and downs of community life and the ways that she is working hard to help the community stay rooted and find a healthy focus.
As Caz explained in an email to me prior to my visit:
“Right now we do not have an intentional community house, or a large amount of service projects, or programs going on as we have in the past (as the stories in the book written 10 years ago speak of).
Over the past year and a half we’ve gone through some major transition, and taken a lot of logs off our fire, that had got pretty saturated, to get the flame burning again. So what happens here on a weekly basis is pretty small and simple, and has begun to look a little different as indigenous neighbors take on more leadership and volunteer roles in the work that had been done by our residents. We’ve had to say no to a lot of good people wanting to come in and help as we’ve listened and made way for neighborhood leaders to take ownership for what our neighbors need and want.
We do still have a couple of families and friends who’ve relocated intentionally, are living and working alongside us, and are sharing life in simple ways. We do still have some rhythms of prayer, shared meals and work, but to a different degree than before. We really have stripped everything back and are ‘starting again’ in a way. It’s been a difficult, yet beautiful season that we know the Spirit will continue to guide us through.”
I love the simple beauty of the main common room where we had our conversation.
Caz spoke about how fame and fire impacted The Simple Way community. In 2006 The Irresistible Revolution and The Simple Way community was put into the national spotlight. During that time Krista Tippet interviewed Shane on Speaking of Faith (now On Being). Then, on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed several properties in Kensington, including the house where Shane was living.
The effect of these two events occurring so close together was an explosion of financial support, organization, projects, collaborations, associations, press and visitors. The initial grass-roots, intentional-community flavor of The Simple Way shifted some. It is still an intentional community, but it’s not of the same type as when it was founded. The Simple Way has essentially remained in a state of discernment and transition since 2007, while still serving the neighborhood and being faithful to the Gospel.
Here is the lot that remains empty since the fire.
The Simple Way is now committed to being a loving presence in Kensington, building relationships of mutuality and establishing sustainability.
And in a place hurting from poverty and its impacts, they offer tremendous beauty and love to the neighborhood by cleaning up spaces and sponsoring artists who paint murals.
They also have a few garden projects.
What I encountered during my visit to The Simple Way was inspiring and exciting for God clearly is actively influencing the life of community. What was especially fascinating, though, were the indicators that the members of this new form of religious life are dealing with similar questions as those of us who are newer to Catholic religious life. In different corners of the country, living different forms of religious life, we all seem to be riding the same wind that the Spirit is blowing throughout God’s people who are eager to build God’s reign of peace and justice.
Just like the peers of my generation in Catholic sisterhood, The Simple Way is grappling with questions of identity and call and how to respond to the signs of these times. They are trying to discern who God needs them to be now, as they stay open to the Spirit’s work and revere the legacy of their founders. They are trying to establish relationships of mutuality with those on the margins of society and build bridges across lines of culture, class and creed (and I have also heard some of my Catholic Worker friends of my generation express the same sort of desires).
Clearly, God is up to many great things through Shane and Caz and their friends and neighbors, who are working hard to help Christ’s peace and love be known in our hurting and troubled world. Thanks be to God for how they offer themselves as true instruments of peace. Let us pray for them and support them in all the ways we are able.
They—like many other Christian millenials—are challenged by the Spirit and the signs of these times. We desire to help God’s peace and justice be known by all people, in every broken place of the world.
No matter what type of Christian community we belong to and whether we are joining a new movement of the Spirit or a 800-year-old tradition, all of us are eager to build deep relationships of mutuality and strong communities. Together we are on this journey of building hope and proclaiming peace. So, let’s pray, discern and follow the Spirit together, now matter how messy, mysterious or confusing doing God’s good work may be! AMEN!
During prayer this morning, I tried to count up all the major changes that have happened or are happening in my life lately. I totally lost count.
The school year ended just four days ago. My youngest sister got married about a week and a half ago. Now, I am in the middle of packing for seven weeks out-of-town, for graduate studies and then an exciting pilgrimage. When I come back to town in early August, I’ll be moving. With the same sisters, down the street, and into another community property, but still–I’m moving.
Transition can be a testy, disorienting time for me. Sometimes my prayer gets tainted by talking to God about the tasks on my ever-evolving to-do list.
When I realize how my busyness is impacting my relationship with God, a strange shame can start to color my thoughts. I find myself thinking hard questions: Am I being too self-centered? Have I made my blessings into burdens? How is God calling me to Love right now? Why do I keep messing up?
The questions, doubts, shame, self-criticism, to-do lists quickly get tangled together in a big mess of awkward prayer.
Truly, God’s mercy and love is abundant. And, God wants me to remain open to love. I know this stuff, but I don’t always remember it. I am not always rooted in it.
God tends to figure out a way to get through my thick thoughts and calm me down with holy reminders. In fact, that just happened.
In my sorting, I came across a poem I wrote about a month ago, when the transition into Spring was vibrant around here. I forgot all about the poem but now it offers words that I want to dwell in and remember, as I keep moving.
The start of the new school year is energizing, exciting, and quickly approaching. Yet before I can start preparing my classroom and my curriculum for a fresh batch of 9th graders, I’m frantically trying to finish my summer projects.
When I see all the unmet goals on my “Summer List,” I feel sad as the reality sinks in: a lot of those things will have to be put off until the fall. I know the start of a new school year will mean bracing myself for a faster pace and more jammed-packed days ahead.
Transitions cause feelings to emerge and the work of getting ready can be exhausting. Some of my attitudes and hopes about the transition are typical. I want to start off the new school year with good organization and clear structure in place for myself and my students. Certainly, great plans and routines are good ideas for balance, health and student learning. It’s so obvious, but it’s not easy for me.
This time, however, my motives have shifted. I have new reasons for wanting better structure and balance in my life.
Here’s something that is a guide for my desires:
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.– Luke 12: 48b
This reminds me of the responsibility I have to be a good steward and to respond to God’s call. Yes, I’m called to be a wonderful teacher for my students and that includes offering them structure and clearly-defined plans. I’ve learned that I have a responsibility to be a steward of the gifts God has given me. I used to associate stewardship with caring for physical things, like the earth or the vehicle I share with my community. My life is more than the material world, so why did I think stewardship would only include that?
Now, though, I desire balance and structure in my life because I want to take better care of ALL the gifts I have–time, energy passion and talent–along with the material stuff.
So, as the summer winds down, I’m in a period of evaluating what I’m doing with my time and abilities. I’ve learned that if God gives a gift–a talent– it comes with a responsibility to develop it, learn all you can about it and be the best you can be at it. Then you can give your gift back to God in the best way possible. Even if it’s hard work. Whew, not a fun lesson for me because sometimes I just want things to be easy.
I met great artists this summer who wowed me with their practical advice about balance. It feels a bit embarrassing to admit I’m learning this adult lesson right now, but I really am marveling in them. I gained a lot from hearing professional artists like Fritz Liedtke speak about balancing their “day job” with art-making. Fritz really seemed to love and value his day job. He spoke about how his money earning informs his art. Because he works at balance, his day job allows him to develop the skills, freedom, time and funds he needs in order to do what matters most to him. Old lesson, new spin: we must balance!
The goals of balance now feel like they apply to me in a new way. I have come to realize–and to accept–that I have gifts, passions, and struggles I wasn’t attending to before. So, I’m challenged to grow: to be better, to be healthy and to still serve with joy. I need to take care of myself and the gifts I’ve been given so I can be the woman God needs me to be. Good intentions, but easier said than done, of course.
By the grace of God, may the stewardship and balancing acts be good going! Amen!
I am thinking about cracks a lot lately. Images of cracks keep flashing through me while I minister and live in community and try to live the Gospel and do this messy Jesus business.
I see cracks in the sidewalks caused by the subtle shifting of the ground we know. God is up to some amazing things and our life will not stay the same.
I also imagine larger, bolder cracks from earthquake and destructive booms. In my heart, I realize cracks inside of dark, hidden caves.
I ponder the meaning of Christ as creator and how new things rise from destruction. I see the leaves slowly changing color, cracking from the branches and falling to the ground, fertilizing a new creation.
I praise God for tombs of destruction cracking open to bring about great resurrections.
And, God stretches me to more deeply accept my vocational callings. My perspective and consciousness keeps shifting. I am challenged to greater self-awareness and acceptance so I can be healthier and happier–fully alive with the goodness of God’s powerful love. This means a lot of letting go and allowing the opening of my heart and mind. As I gain greater self-awareness, my identity cracks and allows new things grow up and out of the rich soil of the God’s creation.
I am limited, this is the reality of humanity. My love and concern for injustice seems to keep expanding, but my love for the “wideness” of God’s universe, paradoxically invites me to acknowledge how I can only do so much.
Sure, I am passionate about the injustices and oppression of marginalized, inner-city youth. Yes, I am concerned about poverty and increasing non-violence skills in places where gun-fire is a daily struggle. I was transformed and challenged by the past four years of my life, serving as an inner-city Catholic youth minister at high schools in Chicago.
I loved it and hoped that I was called to work as an urban youth minister for a long time. God, though, has created a world directed by the changing of seasons. I was invited to let go of a ministry I loved and trusted, and moved to serve new people. Now, I am serving youth who are much more like myself: mostly Catholic, white, middle-class and semi-rural. I love my new ministry and am very healthy and happy in it. I am so thankful, and amazed, as this is not something I ever imagined for myself. God knows best. This is a much better fit and I am limited in what I can really do.
A novel I am reading affirmed this emerging awareness. The character is a woman who is struggling to accept her own vocation. She writes: “I began to accept the limitations of my life and the alteration of my aspirations, an acceptance that younger women consider weakness and surrender. But, I found that the limitations I accepted, as youth and its dreams fell away, composed a narrow and secret passage leading to an expanse of space and liberation I had not realized existed. I began to prefer peaceful surrender to nobel battle, for in peace is an internal freedom one never has in war, though sometimes warring is necessary for external freedom. The disappointments were not bitter, because I was with a companion who did not turn his back on truth” (Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley).
The cracks in my life allow for new growth to spring forth. I am so grateful that through it all, my companion is Christ, the Light of all Truth who creates all things anew. How awesome Jesus is! Amen!
No matter where I am in the world- where I am in my life- I continue to be fascinated with how light and dark dance together. As I journey with Jesus through transitions and changes, I continue to be in wonder and awe of how I experience Christ’s presence in the shadows, the cracks, the hidden, silent places. As my faith deepens, it seems that God is not a God of only what is black and white and crystal clear; rather, God is fully alive in the places made of the energy of grey.
Here’s a collection of some of my photography from the times when I have been mesmerized with the glory of God in the silent spaces as I follow Jesus; the beauty of crossing shadows.
Sometimes, when such silent shadows stun me I remember this song, by Jars of Clay called “Fade to Grey.”