A persecuted Church: Images of the Body of Christ in “Romero”

Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, October 14th. You can view the live Canonization Mass on EWTN starting at 3:30 a.m. ET or again at noon. In honor of the upcoming celebration, I offer you a review of the film about the last three years of his life that I wrote as part of my coursework at Catholic Theological Union.

Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!

When I taught high school, a poster hung in my classroom that read, “Stand up for what’s right even if you’re standing alone.” To my theology students, the poster presented a message about the cost of discipleship; Jesus and his early followers were persecuted for standing up for justice, and through the centuries Christians have been persecuted for living the Gospel.

For three years (1977-1980), Oscar Romero served as archbishop in El Salvador. By his courageous leadership, all people in El Salvador — no matter if they were rich or poor, powerful or oppressed — were challenged to unite together as one body of Christ, as a stronger Church, more focused on the mission of Christ. He confronted systemic injustice, challenged the status quo, and stood along with the poor and oppressed. In the end, his courage caused martyrdom for Archbishop Romero. The true story is a reminder for us all that the cost of being Church can be persecution.

Credit: Franciscanmedia.org

A FILM OF TRUTH AND PAIN

The courage and Christ-like love of the archbishop during his poignant and brief period of leadership is captured in a 1989 film that bears his name, Romero. In addition to telling the tale of Romero’s leadership, Romero says much about ecclesiology through images of the Church as a Persecuted Body of Christ. A major theme of the film Romero is a contextual presentation of a definition of Church; as we see people unite together as the Body of Christ and build the Kingdom of God, the people come to embody the persecuted Christ.

Viewing Romero stirred up deep emotions in me. It felt like an act of prayer to journey with the Salvadorian people, and I became deeply saddened by the truth of their suffering. I remembered my experience protesting at the School of Americas in Georgia; I felt shame to know that my country was on the side of the oppressors in this conflict. Additionally, I became curious about the authenticity of the Romero quotes and the historical accuracy of the film.

I viewed the film in light of my reading and learning in an ecclesiology course at Catholic Theological Union. I was stunned to realize how highly theological the film Romero is and what it says about the global Church in the Post-Vatican II era. I noticed that the film featured several local “non-actors” which served to emphasize the ways in which the poor are the people of God who make up the Church. With this in mind, the faces of the ordinary people became strikingly beautiful as I watched. I realized the meaning was presented through the film’s strategic design of layering the pictures of the people with the sound of Romero’s speeches. The juxtaposition of my deeper theological understanding with the Truth of the story caused me to feel horror each time the film showed an image of Christ or the dignity of a person violated.

THE PERSECUTED BODY

In each period of Church history, there has emerged a new understanding of what it means to be Church. In the 20th century, after the Second Vatican Council, the meaning of Church became multidimensional. Church is a pilgrim people, the people of God on a journey. We are the Body of Christ. In Romero, we see this ecclesiology manifested within the context of the conflict in El Salvador. More significantly, we see how the archbishop responded to the tensions by presenting a way of being a Church that builds the Reign of God through action. As noted by Dulles, “to be fully effective, images must be deeply rooted in the corporate experience of the faithful.” This is, in part, why Romero’s focus on the people being the persecuted Church was effective within the context of El Salvador.

In one particular chapter of the film, we see a simple village church that has been converted into a barracks. The archbishop courageously enters the church and announces to the uniformed soldiers that he has come to retrieve the Eucharist. A machine gun-bearing soldier hears him and turns to point his weapon toward the high altar at the front of the church. First, we see Jesus’ body hanging on the crucifix above the altar as it is sprayed with bullets. Then, we see the doors of the tabernacle blast off as the surrounding altar, wall, and flower vases fill with bullet holes. The soldier turns to the archbishop and tells him to leave the church, and then smiles with satisfaction when Romero does. Romero goes into the street and looks into the faces of the people who stare back at him with concern. Romero then re-enters the church, returns to the high altar and tries to pick up as many pieces of the Eucharist as he can from the floor while more gunfire sprays toward him. As he crouches and gathers his beloved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a soldier approaches and kicks him to the ground. For the third time, the archbishop leaves and returns, now wearing his priestly garments and walking through the streets of the village toward the church with people following him. Romero leads the crowd into the church. Together, they gaze straight ahead and move unflinchingly past the soldiers who are pointing guns at them. Despite the confused and shocked looks upon the soldiers’ faces, Romero and the people fill the church. Archbishop Romero stands near the altar, looks into the faces of the people and speaks. He declares that he and the people have come to

 … retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the Church. You are the people of God. You are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as he was crucified 2,000 years ago … And, you should know that your pain and your suffering, like his, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.

Through the combination of the words of Romero and cinematic technique, the film presents an image of the Church. We see that the Church stands with the oppressed; the Church itself is persecuted, for it is the Body of Christ. The scene mirrors the ecclesiology defended by Romero in his pastoral letter The Church, The Body of Christ in History in which he writes, “no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission … It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself; what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians — especially in anything that involves the poorest of society.” Romero’s particular attention to “the poorest of society” by his words and action is especially significant in the context; the Church was accused of being Marxist and “meddling in politics” because it stood beside the poor. Within the same pastoral letter, Romero defends the Church’s actions against these accusations by especially emphasizing that the Church “has done no more than fulfill her mission.” Part of that mission, he insists, is to promote the inclusivity and unity that is core to the Reign of God, for the Gospel does not exclude any person, rich or poor. As he wrote, “… the Archdiocese has been faithful to the Gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.”

AS ONE BODY OF CHRIST

Throughout the film, as they respond to the sociopolitical tensions in their country, we also see how the poorest Salvadorian people arise united by their ambition to build the Reign of God. The film begins with a scene of the military of El Salvador providing surveillance at a political rally in February 1977. As the people in the crowd cheer to a speech that calls for a free election, it becomes clear that the people are united in their desire for freedom and confrontation of the power system. As the film progresses, the people persevere with unwavering determination, even while more and more people are assassinated, arrested, tortured and raped; disappear. Their cause is the Gospel that promotes the dignity and freedom of all people, but their courage is a threat to the power of the right-wing government and death squads.

Immediately after the martyrdom of Romero, the last scene of the film shows a group of ordinary poor people, old and young, moving along a crowded road. Mothers walk with their children holding their hands. One young woman carries a bucket while another carries a basket on her head. An older man guides a mule. As we look into the people’s faces and see their poverty, we hear Romero’s voice one more time: “I’ve often been threatened by death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadorian people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” With this conclusion of the film, we are once again given an image of the Church as the persecuted people of God.

LESSONS FOR OTHER CONTEXTS

Although the image of the Church that is present in Romero is particular to the sociopolitical context during and after Romero’s time, the image of the people of God being a persecuted Church is not unique to that historical situation. Images of Church “suggest attitudes and courses of action; they intensify confidence and devotion,” but they really are not effective if they don’t fit the experience of the members of the Church. Nonetheless, I can apply certain lessons from Romero to my particular context because I relate to the experience of persecution as a member of the Church.

As a Franciscan Sister, I regularly find myself in a state of discernment about how to live the Gospel no matter the cost of discipleship. Even though my experiences are not as drastic as the violence dealt with by the Salvadorians, I also must confront my fears about the price of discipleship. Romero fed me the courage needed to be a Christian in contentious times; I now expect persecution since I am part of the Church. As a member of the Body of Christ, I will do what the poster in my classroom said and “stand up for what’s right” when the Spirit calls me to. Because of my faith, the difference is that I will be united with my Christian brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. I will not be, as the poster says, “standing alone.”

SOURCES

James R. Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero” Spirituality Today40, no. 40 (1988). Online.

Oscar Romero, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” in Voice of the Voiceless and Other Pastoral Statements, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 69 and 79.

Antonio D. Sison, “Reign-Focus: Theology, Film, and the Aesthetics of Liberation” New Theology Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 45.

Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1964), in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post Counciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northpoint, NY: Costello, 1998), nos. 13 and 50.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.

“Unity,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 78.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 72.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

“End Credits,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.

A Christian’s guide to discerning the Truth in a post-truth era

A few weeks ago, President Trump announced the winners of the Fake News Awards. His pattern of discrediting journalism and attacking the freedom of the press is a fascinating sign of the times we are in;  an opportunity for us to imitate Christ and share mercy and Truth.

But, what if we aren’t really sure what’s True? How do we know what’s Fake News? What if we’re completely dizzy with confusion about who to believe, about who’s right?

My observations of American society in the past of couple years has convinced me that it doesn’t make a difference where one sits on the political spectrum or how educated one is — all of us can fall victim to the lures of propaganda and become unsure what is actually True.

Yet, Scripture tells us, over and over, that we are called to know, love and promote the Truth.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.  – Ephesians 4:15

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  1 Corinthians 13:4-6

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6

Plus, for those of us who are Catholic, we understand that perusing and promoting the Truth is a core component to how we live the Gospel and live as disciples.

The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.  – Catechism of the Catholic Church #2464

 It is by loving that the God-who-is-Love is proclaimed to the world: not by the power of convincing, never by imposing the truth, no less by growing fixated on some religious or moral obligation. – Pope Francis

So, how are we to navigate through this murky era, when the truth is so often watered down or warped to fit particular views?

Source: “The New Yorker”

What I offer here are some tips developed from my study of history, propaganda, media and politics. (Being a history major in college really has served me well!) Last summer, I shared many of these tips and resources to a group at my place of ministry and heard that they were very helpful; I have been meaning to share them with you, Messy Jesus Business readers, ever since. The day has finally come!

DEFINITIONS

First, one of the confusing parts of this time is that many phrases and words are being tossed around, and a lot of people don’t really know what the terms mean. Let’s start with a glossary.

Absolute Truth = Facts which exist without being dependent upon anything else, such as one’s perspective or opinions.

Alternative Facts = Un-factual information, false information.

Bias = Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Confirmation Bias = The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

Fake News = Propaganda or false information published under the guise of being authentic news.

Objective Truth = Not influenced by or based on personal feelings or opinions.

Post Truth = Debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion, which are disconnected from facts.

News = Factual journalism regarding events

News Analysis = Opinion and commentary on the news.

Satire = The use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose or criticize.

Subjective Truth = Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK, DEVELOP YOUR SKILLS

I am growing increasingly convinced that anyone who consumes information in this modern world has a civil duty to develop their skills and critical reading eye. For example, I like how On The Media suggests we spot Fake News.

 

Similarly, it is crucial that readers can recognize bias and are aware what type of slant sources are likely to make. I find this chart quite accurate and helpful.

Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/iPLkz / http://www.allgeneralizationsarefalse.com/ Vanessa Otero

CONVERSE WITH COMPASSIONATE CURIOSITY IN PURSUIT OF THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

Look back at the definitions of Absolute Truth, Objective Truth and Subjective Truth. In our post-modern world, there is a common temptation to let the opinions and beliefs held by another be “their truth” while one maintains “my own truth.” When I hear that folks say things like “believe what you want, I know what I believe” I get frustrated and wonder why we dismiss one another, why we don’t believe that others can help expand our thinking, perspective. Only through community and in relationship can we gain a more complete picture of the objective truth, what we all are here seeking to understand.

Have mercy on me for my terrible clip art, but here’s an image that shows the different types of truth.

Types of Truth (image by Julia Walsh FSPA)

In order to know what is absolutely true, we need to have compassionate curiosity about how others see things; none of us, from our finite human experience, can ever see the whole picture, the entire truth. (The truth that God knows, the Truth that is God. ) Grounded in prayer, we can ask questions without being defensive, without aiming to convince others why our perspective is better.

There are several guides and resources available that can help us develop our dialogue and communication skills. I am especially a big fan of what the folks at On Being are offering with their Civil Conversations Project. The Circle Way is another approach that I have found quite helpful.

LISTEN AND LOVE

Certainly, in order to be an effective communicator, it is important to honor the dignity of every person, to lovingly listen to them in a way that honors that they are made in God’s image. Conversation and listening — when it comes to pursuing the Truth — ought to be an act of prayer. We open up our heads and hearts and remain detached. We allow ourselves to be converted, realizing that the Spirit is always calling us into greater growth and intimacy.

One way to think about it is to consider what is important for good listening. The Chinese character that means “to listen” is made up of smaller characters that reveal what is needed to be a good, active listener. Aren’t these the same elements needed to be attentive in prayer, to be in a loving relationship?

Source: tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/

Overall, Christians, we are called to be discerners, to have the humility to remain open to being wrong and learning from God and others. Only with the guidance of the Spirit and the grace of God can we come to know what is True and worthy of our promotion and experience how the Truth can truly set us free!

You will know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.  – John 8:32

Merry Christmas: the story in the world’s heart

Re-blogged from December 24, 2015.
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The Holy Family in a creche scene in Greccio, Italy, 2014. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.

We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…

[This is the beginning of a column I wrote for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Love, Sister Julia

Redefining faith on El Camino

Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?

Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.

And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.

But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.

I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…

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

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Be perfect

Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?

Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker. The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!”  Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”

woman-covering-mouth
Image courtesy of everydayfeminism.com

My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?

It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.

Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.

Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).”  The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.

I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.

“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”

How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.

No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.

“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

This complicated, imperfect world: an essay

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

little-girl-sandals-mud-rain
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.

And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.

Hearts wide open: in the sky, on earth

Happy Feast of St. Clare! The following prose-poetry is dedicated to her.

This past Monday I drove north, from Kansas City to La Crosse, through lush fields of green growing up towards the sky. As I moved, my eyes focused on the constant road. It was an all-day drive after a two-month pilgrimage of study, retreat, service, connecting and contemplation in states called Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. (At one point this summer I also saw South Dakota from the other side of the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa.)

Now I am back in Wisconsin resisting (partly) a necessary reset of my mind after an experience among a community of creative Christians at The Glen Workshop: I am trying to write an academic paper while poetry in my memory and future propel me backward and forward–as the language of academia conflicts with what my soul desires. This tension is a bit like the thunderstorms that clouds can create; the electricity of the different parts of my mind can also create downpours.

Driving north over concrete and asphalt my gaze floated upward toward the expansive sky, bright blue and full of the puffs of evolving white clouds–clouds slow dancing with cheer and optimism. The clouds moved, merged, formed shapes of glory, as The Great Artist presented signs and affirmations by way of the best piece of interactive installation art ever made: this infinite, expanding universe. With each opening created in the clouds, I pondered my constant sense that The Great Artist was providing encouraging nods of “Keep moving in the right direction” and “Yes, you are part of my wonders, too.”

In the silver machine of mystery (the car, so it is to me) I listened to phenomenal podcasts as I made my way over horizons and toward my home. The words of poets, scientists and journalists multiplied my awe for the beauty and complexity of God’s creation, of this world made so multidimensional by the way we humans interact with God’s doings and pretty much make messes all over the place. I was completely blown away when I heard Paulo Coelho speak about his journey into becoming a writer. I was inspired by how Naomi Shihab Nye overturns the poetry found in ordinary life. I was flabbergasted by the scientific discoveries being made about the intelligence of the forest. And, I was horrified by the reality of what life is like for refugees in Greece nowadays. In each story told, the true wildness of who God made us to be and who we are was exposed: we are one, the body of Christ revealed by way of loving, enfleshed in service and creativity.

Across the expansive sky I saw diamonds and other mysterious shapes made from clouds.  I saw hearts form, widen, evolve. Over rolling plains of farmland, human stories sort-of hugged me in the car container from all sides; tales of tough Truth and invitations to participate in God’s goodness came at me in surround sound. I gasped and grinned for the beauty of the images combined with Truth made into sounds, for the swirling mess of life and beauty enfleshed everywhere.

Hands on steering wheel, mind awake, foot on pedal, eyes wide open, heart expanding. Through God, in God, and by God the clouds moved. And so did I. So did all of us, as one.

"heart in the sky" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“heart in the sky” by Julia Walsh FSPA

What if Jesus prayed like this?

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Sometimes I like to dip my imagination into Scripture. This morning when I was praying with the baptism of Jesus from Luke, this is what I saw:

waterfall
Image courtesy of tripleblaze.com

The banks of Granny’s Beach on the South Toe River in Celo, North Carolina. We used to swim there as kids. A clear blue morning and the ripple of the waves over the river rocks. Jesus stands calmly in the center, still wet from being dunked. Feet are deep into the sandy bottom of the chilly, spring-fed water. Jesus’ hand skims the surface, back slightly bent, eyes lowered in prayer.

 

hand-reaching-waterI look around the banks. Obama kneels beside Paul Ryan. Angela Merkel and Pope Francis link hands. Their concentration is great as they stare into the chilly water—they have come seeking repentance and mercy. There sits my best friend, my mom, and my FSPA sisters. Beside them are Syrian refugees, prisoners solitarily confined, trafficked children from India, and a little girl in a wheelchair. The crowd is large and silent at Granny’s Beach. We have all come with our brokenness, sharing this moment with Jesus.

I still myself, feel the sandy soil solid beneath my own bare feet. And then I hear Jesus’ voice in prayer:

 The sorrow in my heart is only overcome by mercy.

Dear Abba, Papi

   Take all of this and make it new.

       With my body I give you the very brokenness of Earth

             And all her children, the systems that maim and kill,

 The destruction, the mindless forgetting and the willful harm …

     All your children—the cicadas, newborn babies, and volcanic rock …

I give you my own flesh.

 

They have no idea how gentle you are.

   How outrageous is the abundance of your Love,

    Powerful enough to heal and restore

 Every broken cell

                          Of this Cosmic Body!

lava-flow
Image courtesy of CBSNews.com

So I give you my body, this one life, that your love

     May be released into this time and place

           Like the lava of love that will never stop.

 

Grant me the grace to live each day as holy,

     To reverence each face as your beloved 

         And to bear the suffering and resistance that

               Will inevitably come

     with the grace of your humble surrender,

            infinite faith and extravagant love.

 

I love you with my whole self.

     I give this one life I have totally to you.

dove-flying
Image courtesy of freeimages.com

 

And then the sky opens. We shield our eyes from the blinding light. Some form, perhaps like a dove, comes down with a sure and resounding voice.

 

You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

 

May we all come to know this truth, whatever road we walk or load we bear.

 

Amen.

flowing-river
Image courtesy of usgs.gov

 

The story in the world’s heart

 

IMG_0925.jpg
The Holy Family in a creche scene in Greccio, Italy, 2014. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

There is an ancient story that is our common heartbeat. It speaks to us, deeply, quietly and simply; its whispers are heard in the rhythms of our ordinary lives, in between the rushing activity of our regular days. As we move together and alone, the power of this ancient story is known and felt in the cracks and creases of our common heart.

We’ve been waiting for this feast for four weeks. We’ve been waiting for this for thousands of years. We’ve been waiting in the dark, lighting candles, and turning calendar pages to count down the days. We are Advent people; we were made to be people of joyful anticipation. We are communities who persist in…

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

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

Love, Sister Julia

 

adventures in the Spirit, part 1

I am an urban-educator who grew up in the country.  I often feel like my entire life is a Truth-seeking adventure.

I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a very rural community.  Currently, my parents live in an unincorporated village where the town welcome sign proudly announces 27 residents.  Practically everyone I knew growing up looked and sounded a lot like me (fair skin, light eyes and hair, with a twangy Iowan accent).  I attended public school until I went to college (even though I have always been interested in Christianity) because it was the only option.  I didn’t live a sheltered life, really, but I was actually pretty isolated and protected. The woods, fields and pastures were my playground and I only heard gun shots during hunting season.

Now I live in Chicago-land, a sprawling urban area that has a population of over 9.8 million residents!  I teach at an all boys inner-city, Catholic high school pretty much right-smack in the middle of all the action on Chicago’s south side. Today some of my students were casually talking about how they heard gun shots during their baseball game in the park, in the way that my high school friends would talk about hearing thunder during a game.  “It was all right,” they said. “We got to keep playing because they weren’t too close.”  I am worlds away from where I grew up.

I serve in a culture that is not my own.  This high school is much more lively than mine ever was.  From the elders to the children, there’s a different style than I am used to.  Even though I have been in this community for about three years now, I am still frequently exposed to food, music, art, history and speech that is so foreign to me that it seems a passport should be required.  I have had to adapt my teaching style, my expectations and learn a new way of communicating and making jokes.  Everything is interesting and fascinating, and yet I am constantly self-evaluating to make sure I am not subconsciously behaving paternalistically.  Fortunately, I have been embraced by the community and have experienced success.  I am here to serve and it’s an honor and blessing to be so welcome.

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.   -1 John 5:1-4, 6

During Holy Week 2012 I went on a Truth-teaching adventure.  Eight of my students, a school colleague, and an urban 10-year-old (a chaperone’s son) and I squeezed into a van and drove five hours to the foreign land where I grew up.  We stayed four days and nights growing as a team through many fun experiences, service-work, reflections, challenges, prayer and communion.  God was up to a lot of good.

When I get to witness the Spirit at Truth at work, I am amazed I am part of it.  I am amazed I get to see God in action.  Observing enlightenment is like watching a flower bloom or a sunrise, a glorious newness emerges so gradually and quietly.

Before my students and I went on the trip, we had meetings to get ready.  At one meeting I made a huge chart on the board that looked something like this:

We  had a very interesting conversation when we tried to fill in the gaps. Before our trip we left the Truth row blank. Finding the Truth was named as one of the trip’s missions.

Jesus was our trip companion.  Although we were in the hills of Northeast Iowa, I tried to keep my Holy Week spirit with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem.  Jesus is the man who is the best at teaching the Truth!

Like he said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31-32

In this blog series, adventures in the Spirit, I’ll write about all the Truth that was taught and learned by my students in Iowa during our Holy Week adventure.