Driving home from another ministry excursion, I pass billboard after billboard saying there are sex shops nearby. With each sighting, my stomach turns with sickness, my face falls into a frown. I am tempted to ignore the anguish, to shield my thoughts, to avoid that which feels judgmental and ugly within me.
Instead, I take a deep breath and offer a prayer for healing and conversion: may all people revere every other human as sacred and holy. I wonder, though, what else does Christ need me to do with the frequent reminder that our culture has an unhealthy obsession with sex?
My haunted mind wanders as I continue to drive toward home. I remember when I was first introduced to what sex was made to be about, while huddled into a tiny rectory living room with other college students. Crowded together, a bunch of us awkwardly stared into…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for The Mudroom. Continue reading here.]
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…
Recently—and a bit ironically, considering my vocation—my life has offered me an opportunity to learn all sorts of lessons about prayer and parenting.
When I was in temporary vows a few years ago I agonized about my vocation a lot. I agonized about why it was that I was called to be a Sister, especially since marriage and motherhood were also so incredibly attractive to me. I was tormented by my conflicting and equally good desires. I doubted my abilities and even the discernment that led me to religious life and kept me sticking around. “Why?!” was my perpetual question that spiraled around in my prayers and cycled on repeat through every conversation with my spiritual director.
Then, one day, while on retreat and feeling elated in the silence and solitude I was soaking up the answer dawned upon me: I am a Franciscan sister because solitude and silence help me thrive.
It was easy to picture myself as a mother and a wife. My love would be intense and I would be enthusiastic about serving and creating a strong, happy and healthy family. I knew that I’d sacrifice my needs for the sake of others and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy true solitude and prayer—to unite with God in silence. I suspected that my relationship with God would be basically put on hold for 20 years and I couldn’t bear the thought; couldn’t imagine myself as calm and grounded without a strong prayer life. Rather, all I could envision was a frantic, stressed and overwhelmed version of myself–not exactly a peaceful woman who was joyfully living the Gospel.
For the past month I have been very fortunate to stay at my younger sister’s farm in southwest Iowa–and in a sense, test out my intuition about what life would have been like as a mother. My sister is a businesswoman, a farmer, a wife, and a parent; my precious niece is three months old and my adorable nephew is three and half. During these weeks my intuition has been affirmed: yes, indeed, my prayer life is different with kids around.
But, it turns out that I am not exactly frantic, stressed nor ungrounded after all.
It’s taken me a while to understand how this happened. I’ve realized that assisting with childcare hasn’t actually decreased my prayer life, but rather prayer has taken on a whole new form and shape. In this setting prayer happens between diaper changes and bouncing the baby while my sister squeezes in a meeting or a nap. Morning and evening psalms are prayed in a bouncy, choppy manner while a curious preschooler creates an imaginary play world around me.
Mostly, though, God’s presence is known through the ordinary sacredness of viewing the world through the lens of childhood—as a beginner person and a person in need. My niece stares out the the window at the green life moving in the breeze and her expression of pure wonder and awe remind me not to take God’s creation for granted. My nephew cries out “I want someone to play with me!” and interrupts my tasks with a reminder that attending to a vulnerable child is one of the best ways to unite with God’s love and listen to God’s voice.
For certain, I have learned that the prayer of parents and childcare workers is the prayer of action. It is on-the-go, and in-between. For some families prayer may be structured and formal, but for most it’s likely the holy raptness of ordinary chaos. It is listening and responding to a child’s cries, questions, or made-up story. It is asking the child to lead the meal time prayer. It is responding to the question of “How did God make the cabbage purple?” with “It is a beautiful mystery! Isn’t God amazing?!” It is, as Messy Jesus Business Rabble Rousers Nicole and Steven have each written about, integrating Truth and wonder into the messy, loving relationships and constant service of family life. It is psalms enacted and adoration of God everywhere, just like the sort of stuff that Sister Sarah will speak about in a webinar later this week.
Although my experience this past month has been a blessing and a teacher, I still feel affirmed in my vocation as a Franciscan Sister. As my time here comes to a close, I look forward to returning to my more familiar form of religious life, to sharing daily life with my FSPA sisters and a bit more structured prayer. There, I’ll pray united with parents everywhere who commune with God in the art of childcare every chaotic, beautiful day.
“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”
My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.
That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.
I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….
What will I be when I grow up? It’s a familiar question. As a happy and energetic farm girl in Iowa, I frequently imagined what my life would look like as an adult.
While I helped my mother with chores or ran around exploring the woods and the farm buildings, I dreamed about how I might run a household if I ever were a mother some day. I looked forward to when I would be able to do adult things and make my own choices. I saw myself acting a lot like my own mother and grandmother: gardening, cooking and baking in a big farmhouse and offering care to a lot of happy and playful children.
I also dreamed about being a teacher, a writer or maybe a missionary in another country. I did have a vague idea that I might like to be a Catholic sister, based largely on my love of films like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” but my childhood dreaming never included the picture of me actually being a nun.
What remained a constant in my childhood thoughts about being an adult, however, was an experience of relating to a large, loving family. This makes sense. I never knew any Catholic sisters as a child, but…
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!
This past week I journeyed with a group of women discerning a call to religious life. We traveled to New Orleans for a week of service at a ministry called The Rebuild Center, a collaborate effort by the Presentation Sisters, Jesuits and Vincentians. No, our ministry was not carpentry or plumbing, but rather helping rebuild lives by serving some of the most neglected on the streets of New Orleans—the homeless.
Several in our group were nurses and some were trained in healing touch. These women set up a massage and foot washing area for The RebuildCenter’s guests. Those of us in the group, like me, not trained in the medical field were given a crash course on healing touch and were invited to partake.
Honestly I was feeling uncomfortable with this invitation. Massaging another person is rather intimate and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of intimacy with a homeless person. And just the thought of touching another’s dirty feet made me feel nauseated. I avoided the invitation by sticking in the kitchen to help prepare the meals. However, every day I heard this nagging voice inside me say, “You should try it, look at the other women who are courageous enough to try it.” I would go peek in on the stations, but fear and the waves of nausea stopped me. I told the inner voice, “I can’t do it.”
Being in the Lenten season, the symbolic nature of the foot washing was not lost on me, and I was plagued with guilt of not being able to muster enough courage to serve these vulnerable men and women in this way. I felt like the rich young men of scripture whom Jesus told to sell their possessions and follow him. I walked away sad, feeling as though I was failing Jesus.
I wanted the courage to lovingly be able to enter into the foot washing ministry. I kept praying during the week that I would feel called and would have the courage to respond yes. On our final day in New Orleans Molly, one of my companions, asked if I was ready. Surprisingly, I said “Yes I think I can do it.” I suggested I watch her technique with one guest first and then jump in (I was really stalling for time). My face was hot and flush when I said this and she suggested I sit down and breathe deep. I watched Molly pray over her guest’s feet then gently and tenderly wash, massage and slip on new socks. Molly and the guest engaged in personal conversation all the while the man was getting his feet massaged, at one point he stopped in mid conversation, lost his train of thought and was swept away by the loving touch of Molly. I was witnessing a sacramental encounter.
After watching Molly I had enough courage to serve the next guest on the list who wanted a foot washing. I followed Molly’s example and with the grace of God was able to enter as deeply into the experience as Molly.
I was humbled and blessed in this simple act of love. I understand the profound message of Jesus in the scriptures as he washed the disciples’ feet, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:14-17) In the voice of the Spirit that came through Molly, and in the reciprocated love and trust of the homeless of the Rebuild Center, I know I am blessed.
When I pray about the fullness of the kingdom of God, I visualize diverse people of every type gathering around huge open tables, communing by sacred bread, wine and laughter and uniting together in Love in their actions of justice. The classic images of diversity come to mind for me quite quickly: different races, cultures, languages, and ages in particular.
I suspect, though, that for God the diversity that is needed is deeper than the visual differences. We need everyone, no matter who they are, to feel free to sit at our tables with us.
It’s beautiful when people who look different gather together and unite. But, what about when people think and believe differently?
Certainly, there’s much tension and confusion when people just completely disagree about principles and values. We don’t have to look too far into any political news to recognize how diversity can be damaging or even disastrous. Personally, the more I grow in understanding of who I am and what I believe, the more challenging it can become to relate to people whose lifestyles and values are completely different than mine. When I admit this, I become embarrassed. Isn’t a point of Christianity to witness to what’s different? When did I only want to hang out with people like me? (Can you believe that in some circles I’m actually pretty normal? Ha!)
My life of Christian service and witness causes me to encounter people who are completely outside of my norm and bubbles, as it should. It’s not a surprise to me that many- if not most- people live their lives without any experience of real Christian church and base their morality on what feels right and good. Sometimes when people behave in ways that I am strongly morally opposed to I feel like all can do is become awkward. Likewise, friendship can feel nearly impossible when a person boldly tells me that he or she don’t want to believe in God nor does he or she like Christianity or religion at all. Sometimes diversity can feel insulting. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out in the struggle.
Basically, I tend to prefer that my friends believe the same things as me. It’s easier and supporting. Or, is it?
I don’t want to be judgmental. I try to love and listen when I am hanging out with people who spend their time and money on the things that I try to preach against. Although I feel a sense of confidence in my faith and my opinions are quite strong, the real challenge is to remain open-minded and allow for my own conversion in the face of challenging diversity. I try not to respond with criticism and instead only offer my opinions when asked. I believe my loving presence is valuable, yet sometimes diversity can be so frustrating. I bite my tongue so much it bleeds and pound my head against the wall so much that it bruises.
When God made us all different, I wonder how we were to live with it. Beating my head up against a wall and pulling out my hair is probably not what God had in mind. I believe that we are called to lovingly accept all people but not all behavior. I believe we’re to witness to the counter-cultural Gospel way through love and service.
I believe it’s all about openness. As I serve with an open heart, I must keep an open mind. As I live outside of my comfort zone and get stretched into weird shapes, I must remain grounded in Christ. Grounded in Christ and open to all, the strangest situations can bring me closer to Him. I hope and pray that as I live in the openness of God’s love and diversity, I come to know the Truth that shall set me free from all that head-banging and social awkwardness.
As I fumble through this, I remain open. As I open, I gain awareness. It’s a blessing that God can grace me with wisdom and guidance. After all, it’s a gift that there’s really no one else just like me. And, it’s a comfort that my struggles and questions are sort of ancient stuff:
The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.” Solomon answered: “O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”
The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request. So God said to him: “Because you have asked for this— not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding so that you may know what is right— I do as you requested. I give you a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” –1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12s
You’ve probably heard the saying: “Live simply so others may simply live.” Different sources credit the phrase to different wise people, like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa. Either way, it’s a good mantra and the saying totally carries weight.
Lately a new, yet similar saying has been rattling around in my consciousness: “Live simply so communities can simply survive.” It’s not as poetic but I think it’s just as true and powerful. Plus, I made it up (I think) so that adds to its awesomeness. Just kidding!
Anyway, in my recent summer adventures I have been encountering this simplicity truth in a variety of ways. It’s not new stuff to me; I think about it lot. The circumstances of life, however, just really seem to rub my face in my convictions sometimes.
Last week while I was working with the Peacebuilders Initiative I was blessed to accompany a group of teens on their ministry site visits to the White Rose Catholic Worker here in Chicago. My friends at the White Rose totally seem like ordinary Christians to me. They dumpster dive, grow and preserve their food, give things away freely, advocate for justice, pray a lot, share everything (including their home with strangers) and compost and recycle all their waste. Yet, the teens kept talking about this way of life as foreign to them. It was a reminder to me how my preferred way of life (service combined with sustainability mixed into activism, grounded in good Catholic prayer) is actually quite radical.
Sometimes I forget how my vocation and passions have made me into a counter-cultural creature. The thing is though, my consciousness doesn’t really make it into an option for me, but a necessity. There’s a fire in my belly that burns me right into action. I live the way I do- and am always seeking to increase my sustainability and simplicity- because it seems to me to be the way we need to live.
When the Peacebuilders and I visited my Catholic Worker friends last week, their community did a really terrific job of organizing programming and hands-on actions in order to help the teens gain an foundational understanding about why people choose to live simply as they do.
One day we watched this video together and discussed how environmentalism is intertwined with Gospel living:
The video left me feeling embarrassed for a variety of reasons. It feels overwhelmingly inevitable that I cooperate with the systemic injustices related to consumerism. I don’t mean to, I don’t want to. I just seems to happen, I’m sorry. (I feel like a whiner as I confess this sin, blah!)
But then, I know about alternatives to cooperating with the mainstream. And I try to choose them as much as possible. Some of the most basic ways to live simply have to do with food.
My friends at the Catholic Worker House took our Peacebuilder group to their organic farm for some good-old-fashioned labor last week and I was overjoyed (seriously!) to be placing composted manure around plants and weeding veggies. I was also amazed while I heard the teens say that they had never done anything like it before. Again, I was reminded that it is sort of a radical thing to grow one’s own food now days.
Then, on Tuesday of this week I was was again doing labor and bonding with Earth. I helped my sister box up veggies from her farm for her CSA business. As we weeded, harvested, packaged and delivered foods to people in her community I couldn’t help but think the whole thing felt sort of silly- we were working so hard to feed people who also had good land to grow food. My sister echoed my thoughts as we drove around (and wasted fuel) and made deliveries. She said she’d welcome competition and wishes that CSAs were more ordinary, as it is necessary for us to develop community through local economies. In the same way, I prefer that we’d revert to a culture of neighbors creating hand-made crafts and food for each other. The earth seems to be begging for it.
Let’s do it, Christians. Let’s free ourselves from bills and material abundance, and live simply so that we are closer to the earth and our neighbors. Let’s build community by sharing in the responsibility of sustainability. Let’s live life to the fullest and love one another. The bible tells us to, plus our brothers and sisters far and near need us to help build their communities, not harm them.
As my sister, the farmer, said here, eating food (like all simple actions) is something that connects as a community, no matter where live. So, let’s connect by living simply. God help us, Amen.
Sister Thea Bowman sings the old spiritual song. My vows have already been made to the Lord. When I was around 12 I first began to really experience God. That led me to become an active Quaker and to seek God through silence and service. Somewhere along the way I had a distinct moment when I knew I had fallen in love with Christ and then when I knew I had fallen in love with the People of God. Both have been essential to my journey.
Quakerism has been described as a religion which is communal mysticism. Community is essential and I found my love for community soon shaping my choices. From a Quaker college, to a year as a lay volunteer with Catholic sisters, to teaching at a Quaker boarding school I lived in small groups, prayed together, and sought God through communal means. My love of Hispanic culture led me to Mexico, from there to the Franciscans and then into the Catholic church, which I experienced as a wider and more diverse community.
Fishbowl Not Pedestal
At times I feel that formation has turned me inside out and then left me in my confusion to put myself back together again. Now I look at it differently. Incorporation demands conversion, but I am not alone. My sisters are with me, at varying levels of intimacy and personal skill, to both challenge and support me.
I entered my Franciscan community after only being a Catholic for two years. I struggled with the title of “sister,” the public notice and appreciation, and centuries of baggage that were all new to me. A distinction during novitiate helped me name how I felt about becoming “a religious.” Being on a pedestal is not helpful to me or to anyone else and some of this relational model still hangs over from our past. However, I am called to be in a fishbowl. I have made public vows to Christ and the church and people should be able to look at me and see that I am at least trying to live how I say I do.
Fear and Awe
I feel a prior claim to religious life. I also believe that this commitment is my free choice. I am coming home to Jesus, the People of God, and these particular FSPA women through my “yes.” I believe to make perpetual vows is to live them and repeat them on a daily basis.
I find religious life to be deeply intimate. Like the cross, the horizontal plane of relationship with others and the vertical call to deep union with God intersect daily. I need to pause and listen deeply before making this lifetime commitment and I know that listening needs to happen in relationship.
When I meet other new members of Catholic orders I am always struck by how there is no fear around diminishment. Yes, religious life will change drastically in my lifetime. We have many losses, particularly at every funeral. But I firmly believe that this is a dynamic opportunity for religious life to remain fed by its source which is Christ.
In making vows I feel my emotions most intensely, particularly fear and awe. There is no little amount of fear as I commit my life not only to God, but to this community of women and this church. But I have voiced my fears and they have heard me and they still want to journey with me. Together “we done made our vows to the Lord.”
Sister Sarah will profess her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 2011. This is her fourth guest blog entry.