Praying with Fr. James’ Martin SJ’s Examen app recently, I heard the words, “Lent is drawing to a close. For Christians, that means not only is there some anticipation for the celebration of Easter, but also some inevitable disappointment about your Lenten spiritual practices …”
The words froze me still. And completely validated my experience. Are you saying, prayer podcast creators, that everyone else is just as awful at fasting as I am? Are you telling me no one succeeds in the spiritual life, that none of us are actually excellent at being disciplined?
My mind wandered into the pit of questions, momentarily distracting me from praying the Examen. Why do we work so hard to grow closer to God, to journey on the path of holiness, if we know that we will stumble? Why do we remain dedicated through the trials, even if our efforts become floppy and we mess up so much? Could the trick of Lent actually be that it doesn’t really matter what penance we do, but why we do it?
What if the actual point of Lenten penance is that it teaches us our desperate need for God?
I’ve been here before, much more in touch with the darkness inside of me at the end of Lent. I seem to repeat my patterns every Lenten cycle; I practically write every year about my failure to make it through.
This year, though, I don’t feel like a failure. I feel grateful to have gotten in touch with the Truth: I am a sinner, a woman who must be fully rely on God. Only with God’s grace am I able to offer my broken, half-hearted self and allow God to make it into something beautiful –something that can be used for God’s purposes.
I can have faith in God’s presence, God’s eagerness to help me grow and recover, again and again, from the darkness in me. I can have faith that God will find a way to use my weak and broken self, and make me more wholly into a woman made for God’s purposes. I learned a new Bible verse at the start of Lent, one that has been a comfort to carry me through: Trust in God’s faithful love forever. (Psalm 52:10)
Even when I fail, God remains faithful. This is what I can trust in, believe in, and rely on.
So, yes, it is inevitable that I stumble and fail, that I become disappointed with myself and my imperfections. But, this isn’t all bad. Each time I become disappointed in my efforts, I see the truth of who I am, I come to know the darkness within me. This causes me to turn to God, to know the power of God’s grace and faithfulness again and again, to open space for God to remake me, which God never seems to grow tired of doing.
I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.
Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.
As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.
Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.
As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.
But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.
We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.
In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.
As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.
Easier said than done (at least for me).
Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.
This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.
Especially as a mother.
Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.
As we wait in the dark for the coming of Christ during these Advent days, it can be tough, at times, to keep going.
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.
With all this in mind, I have created a playlist for all of you who are in need of hope and healing. Many good people gave me input for this list — thanks to all of you!
Perhaps you also will find that these tunes, and some of their particular lyrics, can energize your Gospel living. May you remain hopeful and strong, even when the messy chaos and darkness distract from Christ’s light.
“Till We Reach That Day” from “Ragtime,” the musical
Give the people
A day of peace.
A day of pride.
A day of justice
We have been denied.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray…
We’ll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.
“You will be found” from “Dear Evan Hansen,” the musical
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
If you only look around
You will be found.
“Somewhere to begin” by TR Ritchie, sung by Sara Thomsen
People say to me, “Oh, you gotta be crazy!
How can you sing in times like these?
Don’t you read the news? Don’t you know the score?
How can you sing when so many others grieve?”
People say to me, “What kind of fool believes
That a song will make a difference in the end?”
By way of reply, I say a fool such as I
Who sees a song as somewhere to begin
A song is somewhere to begin
The search for something worth believing in
If changes are to come
there are things that must be done
And a song is somewhere to begin.
“The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens
And keep your word, disguise the vision ’till the time has come.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear.
Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near!
“Open Up” by The Brilliance
Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
(As only You can love, oh God)
“All my hope” by Crowder featuring Tauren Wells
There’s a kind of thing that just breaks a man
Break him down to his knees
God, I’ve been broken more than a time or two
Yes, Lord then He picked me up and showed me
What it means to be a man
Come on and sing
All my hope is in Jesus
Thank God my yesterday’s gone
“Rise Up” by Andra Day
You’re broken down and tired
Of living life on a merry go round
And you can’t find the fighter
But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out
And move mountains
We gonna walk it out
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
Feel free to share in the comments section. Which songs provide hope and healing to you? Which songs keep you going and help you spread God’s light in the darkness?
With an armful of children’s books and DVD’s, I make my way through the glass library door. I feel awkward as I carry these items, as foreign to me as the rocks on Mars. I feel like I should explain that these books aren’t for my children, that I don’t have any.
I’ve been visiting this library for nearly a year, yet I only stepped into the kid’s section for the first time during this visit. I felt like an intruder, like I needed to explain myself, justify my presence there. I guess I felt a bit lost away from…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the Page. Continue reading here.]
Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.
I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.
Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.
In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…
In a few of the less-productive minutes of my day, I play an online Star Wars game on my phone. I have some beloved characters which I attempt to constantly level up: by completing certain challenges, I can make my characters faster and stronger. In the game world I am part of a guild—a group of other players that band together to tackle in-game challenges far too difficult for one player to take on alone. Currently, we are all trying to level up our best characters to advance to the hardest level of guild challenges. While I hesitate to call anything related to a video game “work,” it is going to require some effort for us all to get there. We’re going to have to play smarter, get better, and put in some game time to get our characters to where they need to be. But because we know the next set of challenges holds greater rewards, we are all anxious and eager to do so. The harder the challenge, the more experience and spoils you receive when you complete it.
And lately, I’ve noticed how very different this mindset is from the way I approach my real-world journey. In the game I’m ready to take on the next difficulty; eager for the newest challenge. I want to tackle the hardest quest because I know my character will grow and the rewards will be greater. But in life, I’m constantly trying to get away from difficulties and run from challenges. I pray that burdens will be lightened or lifted, and that obstacles will be magically removed from my path. I avoid difficult people and situations. I try to offload problems onto others. I pretend an injustice I’m staring at isn’t really as bad as it looks, or that at the least there is nothing I can do about it.
That is no way to grow the kingdom, or to build a better world. The tasks the Church faces are huge—and they will not be solved by running from them. Instead, we must run toward them. I must adopt the attitude of “game me.” Where is the next challenge? I want it. Where is the next difficulty? I’m ready to face it. What if, instead of praying for lighter crosses, we started praying for heavier ones? For more obstacles, for greater burdens? What if we did this knowing that God provides the strength for any tasks He gives us? How much more grace we would receive, and how much more we might accomplish for God’s glory!
Believing that by granting her suffering God spares someone else that burden, St. Bernadette gave thanks for every affliction she received. With willingness to suffer she became stronger, more steadfast, more patient, and more trusting in God. And she knew that more of God’s work is done with each slight forgiven; all wrong patiently borne. I wish I could more fully adopt this mindset, seeing my God-given challenges not as slights but as gifts—gifts given to a servant who can be trusted to accomplish the task.
What injustice might you be tempted to turn from and avoid today? Go out to face it! What discomfort could you feel that might advance God’s cause of peace and love? Endure it! The greater the challenge, the greater the glory when it is overcome. My in-game guild knows this. I hope that my real-world guild and I (also known as the Church) can learn to better live this lesson as well.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
About a week before I professed my final vows, in the summer of 2015, I had a crisis of faith.
During a private retreat in a quiet cabin, I was tucked into a recliner, blankets snuggled around me. I stared out a wide window toward a vast lake — not a lake I know well; I have no sense of its depth, shape or shores. I could only see part of the stirring waters. It was miles across to the other side.
Staring into the expansive mystery and intensely aware of my human limitations, I felt my spirit stir with anxiety and tension. How could I possibly submit myself to a life centered on God if I am not completely sure what God is? How can I say “yes, forever” if the future feels frightening?
With such questions multiplying inside of me, I prayed, pondered and agonized. After a while, the Spirit reminded me of a book by Congregation of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson called Quest for the Living God. Informed by the writings of Karl Rahner, Johnson dedicated an entire chapter to God as Holy Mystery in the book.
I found a copy and read the chapter about Holy Mystery. I prayed and was honest with God about my questions and my struggles. Gradually, I felt reassured and inspired to…
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.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
I live on the cusp of enough and dreamy desires; in the liminal land of paradox.
I am always trying to make do with my limits, to authentically live my vow of poverty and get re-rooted in simple living.
Yet. I am always longing for more.
Desire, dreams, faith and hope fuel my energy. Even when I am overwhelmed or exhausted, a vision of justice-prevailing and the Kingdom of God coming into full fruition remains my impetus for laboring and loving. I believe that the peace Jesus proclaimed is possible.
Honestly, my yearning for more-than-is/more-than-I-have-right-now isn’t always about the ideals I hold close to me. Some of my dreams are embarrassingly superficial, completely basic and ordinary. Like Oh, how I wish I had a panini maker to cook this sandwich or This hairdryer is too loud and clunky, I should get a new one. I am regularly creating mental lists of objects that I think will create more convenience and efficiency in my busy life, just because I too fall for the lies of American commercialism and capitalism. I have to catch myself. When I find myself thinking that more stuff will be a solution, I must gain new consciousness. I must recommit myself to my vow of spiritual and material poverty, to my “Yes” to trusting that God has always given me enough. I really know how to make-do with what I have, I just have to remind myself of this frequently.
Every day, every moment, I have enough. I have enough time. Enough materials. I have all that I need. I have passion and potential. I am loved and supported. God’s abundance is infinite and as a child of God, I have access to the graces and strength and power and love that is enough for me. We all are children of God and we all have access.
Some days–in some moments–this means I must truly honor my limitations and needs. I am tired, I need to rest or I will kill myself if I try to meet this deadline, I must ask for an extension. This is an element of honoring my own dignity as sacred, of caring for the vessel of the Holy Spirit that I aim to be.
I am limited. I am weak. And, amazingly, by God’s grace when it comes to what matters most, I totally have enough. I must trust and allow myself to remain in God’s loving hands.
God calls me to continual growth, to be a steward and foster the gifts I have been given. Just like the rest of you, I am invited to expand the reign of God and contribute to a better society, to a more just and peaceful humanity.
I really am heartbroken about the ways that we don’t honor every human life as sacred in our culture. Unborn babies are killed and criminals are executed. Street shootings are common. Prisons practice torture and remain open and funded. Drones are still flying and people are still starving to death.
I have a responsibility to contribute to positive social change. I can develop my own talents and abilities so to better glorify God through all my choices.
Do I have enough or not? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want to be greedy. I want to be a person who creates, not consumes. I do know that I am on the edge of satisfaction and healthy discontentment. A Gospel tension is alive within me, a Spirited realization that the world is not the way God intended, because we truly are sinful creatures.
I am slowly learning that this tension is holy ground. It turns out that this dilemma of desire is actually our God-given nature. Though limited, we all are on a journey of growth and self-improvement. By God’s design satisfaction and contentment are fleeting; we constantly yearn to know, feel and experience more.
Ultimately though, when we yearn in the in-between space of Hope for a better world and This is enough, we are yearning for God; for the simple, loving Way of Jesus. We desire God–for the source of all the justice and goodness that we believe in–to prevail and reign. May it be so, Amen, Indeed!