Honoring all the souls

It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.

Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.

After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.

To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.

Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.

That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.

On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.

During this sacred month of November,  may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.

Through each gesture and prayer,  I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.

Big picture love

Union with God: we pray for it, long for it, work for it. But, are we prepared for what it can do to us? How much could we be transformed if, for example, we start to see the world as God sees it? And, what does love got to do with it?

Last night I renewed my temporary vows for two more years; I am now starting my fifth year of vowed life with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and it’s truly awesome. I marvel at all the abundant blessings that embrace me and the numerous ways that I am enriched by life in a community of phenomenal women. God is so good and I am blessed!

One of the amazing ways that life in community (and in many ways, life in general) enhances me is the gift of love that is given: I am constantly held by Love’s power. Through love I feel accepted and appreciated (celebrated, even) and it’s energizing. Plus, the love I experience is overwhelming because it is so big, huge, deep and wide.

And, I shall confess, it also feels a bit unfair to experience so much love. I am thankful but I do also squirm in the awkwardness and get a tad uncomfortable. Somehow it’s uncomfortable when I realize that it’s deserved–that I am indeed love-worthy. (In fact, we all are!)

Being loved–understanding how loved I am–feels unfair because I know many, many people do not understand they are loved by God or feel loved by others. I don’t like it when someone is wealthy in a goodness that others lack, and need. Some of the youth I have worked with especially do not understand that they are beautiful, loved, precious and valuable children of God. This breaks my heart. Also, many of the people I know who live in tough poverty have to struggle with homelessness or insecurity simply because they are not blessed with a huge circle of supportive, loving relationships like I am. This is not their fault, it’s their situation.

In another element of society, I have encountered ministers–yes, ministers–who do not feel worthy to be loved by God or used as an instrument of God. It’s different than an appropriate humility or minority (so well described here by my Franciscan missionary friend). Why do we see love right in front of us and then not accept it? I wonder if it’s worse than having low self-esteem or being insecure.

As humans we fall into traps of categorical and hierarchical thinking way too quickly.

When we’re really free–when we’re really united with God–then we get to step back and see things like God does. We gain a big picture, a full-range view of what’s really up. Then we realize that God doesn’t ever think anyone or anything is ever better than another. Love is not unfair, love is always wide, deep, detailed, and full of freedom.

I wonder if it looks something like this:

"Dubuque from above" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Dubuque from above” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The other day I enjoyed a beautiful plane ride over Wisconsin. From above, I could see the hot humidity hanging over the land, even though I knew those on Earth couldn’t see what was causing them to feel as they did.

There’s a bit of a paradox in what goes through my mind when I’m in airplanes. Looking down, I wonder if I’m seeing the world as God sees it. But, then I believe wholeheartedly that God is not just above us, looking down, watching over us. Nope, God is totally, intimately with us, even in the littlest, tiniest things. I remember having a totally profound dream about ten years ago in which I discovered the nativity scene on the tip of a tiny thread. I think God is also like that.

Love is like that too. After all, God is Love.

So, right, love is fair, good, awesome, wide, deep, big, detailed–it encompasses all things. Just like it says in St. Paul’s old love letter:

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinth 13:7)

This is the sort of thing we must remember and recommit to when we’re frustrated or discouraged, when Gospel living feels too messy for our liking. Love bears even the ugly, the injustices, the violence, the sin. We get to lean into God’s love, we can trust God even when the suffering is too intense for us to have hope in redemption. I believe all this but can admit it’s easier said than done.

One of my favorite names and images of God is of God as The Great Artist–the one who is still creating, making the masterpiece of the universe. Only God can really know how or why the mysterious colors of suffering are needed or fit into the big picture.  (Fr. Barron explains this quite well in Episode 3 of the Catholicism series.)

So all in all, God’s love is both big picture stuff and tiny thread stuff. I get to experience it in my vowed communal life and I hope you’re experiencing it too. We are loved and God is love; this is very good! Together, let’s savor it and dwell in it and share it–and then together, we shall be more transformed by it too. Amen!

Holy Relating in the Facebook-Era

I watched The Social Network last night, mainly because I was curious.  Similarly,  I joined Facebook five years ago, shortly after it started and around the same time that I entered my community, because I was curious.  Curiosity is usually what causes me to conform, even if I have mixed feelings or I am not really sure how an action may fit with my Christian living.

The story of the creation of Facebook is very real:  it’s friendships, energy, ideas and passions spiraling around young, talented people in a legalistic, money-driven era.  The true story felt like a visual time-capsule to me, like something that historians and psychologists will be able to study in 50 years when they are trying to make sense of why humans relate as we will then.

The film reminded me that it’s true that organic, creative projects change the world and humanity forever.  This fact echoes my understanding of the Gospel- the call to build the Kingdom that gives me great joy.  In collaborative communities we create change and help people connect more deeply, and it’s really powerful and good.  Plus, the story got me thinking about how relationships can be twisted collisions of trust and distrust, hope, love, faith, confusion and betrayal.  Is that a tragedy?  I am not sure.  This reality seems to fit with the story of Jesus, too.

Nonetheless, I am disturbed.  I have found it fascinating- and frustrating- to participate in the evolution of human relating and communication during the past five years, since Facebook (and now Twitter, etc.) have become as common as eating. (At least for the 8 percent of us on earth who actually have internet connection, I suppose.)

Lately I have tried to be more conscientious about how much I use Facebook, mention Facebook in conversations and hear others talk about Facebook each day.  Naturally then, I was amused at mass this morning when the priest told a story about how he reconnected with an old friend through the internet and Facebook.

I suspect many of us have had similar experiences.  I imagine that a lot of us have found Facebook a helpful tool in fostering relationships and reconnecting with friends.   I have, and it is very exciting.   I appreciate being able to read headlines and see pictures of babies, weddings and ordinary life stuff of people I know with as much ease as reading a newspaper.  This is good, I think, because I believe that relationships are the meaning of life.  We grow in union through communication and communion,  through all of our relating to each other.  In addition, the technology permits a different type of Gospel witness, and this is good.

Nonetheless, I have questions and concerns.  I heard a story about a friend-of-a-friend who learned about the sudden death of her aunt through a Facebook post recently.  I know of other tragic- and joyous- momentous news that has been shared through family and friends exclusively through technology.   I doubt that this is good for our souls and spirits.  When things are deep and meaningful, it doesn’t seem healthy to relate with each other without the raw mess of human emotion, inflection and reflection.

Does it hurt us when we learn about big things in our close friends’ lives at the same time as their other 650 Facebook friends/acquaintances?     Why does it suddenly seem so hard to relate to each other in real, old-fashioned types of ways, like through visits, phone-calls and hand-written letters as we live and love?  Have we lost our human touch?

Certainly, our society has been drastically changed by Facebook technology.  Likewise, the way we relate and communicate has radically shifted.

Is this God’s will for us? Is this what Jesus intended when we were commissioned to build the kingdom?   How does our modern technological communication impact our souls, our freedom, our prayer and our ability to relate to each other as God designed us?

On this Feast of the Holy Trinity, we are blessed with renewed focus on God who is perfect relationship and who is Love and Truth.  In the Trinity we know a love so self-giving and constant that the union changes all creation.  We learn how to Love if we listen in prayer to how God the Parent, God Incarnate and the Holy Spirit relate together as three-in-one.

How did God design us to relate to each other? Since we’re made in God’s image, I believe it’s just like the Trinity.  Let’s love, give, share, care, hold, touch, heal, help, communicate, commune and just be together in the real, raw mess of relational love.

Let’s love each other, in the boundless, eternal non-technological, human ways.  The Bible tells us so:

Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.         –  2 Cor 13:11-13