Holiness is messy: “Gaudete et Exsultate” highlights

On Sunday, I stood in a Church parking lot with about a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation. I held a pile of paper plates under my arm, a black marker in my hand. The youth all stood behind a line, listening to me as I described their task: moving as a team to another line many feet away. The challenge was my version of the team building game, Stepping Stones.

Source: FreeImages.com

“That line, over there, represents the Kingdom of God that you are called to build up. Right now you are in Church on that side of the line, but you must move outward, as a Christian community. You will venture out into a world where the focus is often not on the things of God, where you are often pressured to be someone you are not called to be, someone who is selfish and greedy and mean. Instead, you must be a community and work together and not fall into temptations. (If anyone in your group touches the swamp of sin, then you all must start over.)

“All you have are these stepping-stones, representing the Christian practices that keep you strong, faithful and focused on Christ. If you let go of any of these practices (if you are not touching the stone as you move forward) then you cannot use the stepping-stone; the hungry sharks (your confirmation sponsors standing over there, watching on the sideline right now) will snatch them up.

“In order for you to have these stepping-stones available to you, I need to hear you name a Christian attitude or action that will enable you to have strength, to build up God’s kingdom and remain on the path of holiness. What do you say?”

The teens started to name typical Christian behaviors. I wrote each one on a plate and handed the plates to them one at a time, so they could use them as stepping-stones to help them move to the other line.

“Go to Church.”

“Pray.”

“Be nice to people.”

“Forgive.”

“Read the Bible.”

“Good, good. What else? You have more plates here that could become stones if you say more things that Christians do.”

What was said then totally surprised me, even though it was absolutely right.

“Have joy.”

Source: FreeImages.com

The next day, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” was published; it means “Rejoice and be glad!” As I read the exhortation, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about the teens who are about to get confirmed and our discussions during the retreat. It was very clear that they already understood the universal call to holiness; now my prayer for them is that they will boldly follow that call, no matter how messy Gospel living may be.

I hope we all do.

What follows are a few highlights from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” sorted into categories I made in order to highlight how moving on the path of holiness and living with joy is often messy, challenging work. As we live this way, let us rejoice!

ORDINARY HOLINESS

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14)

“That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” (#20)

EVEN SAINTS MESS UP

“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (#22)

“May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.” (#24)

GOD IS IN THE MESSY PLACES

“Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” (#42)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.” (#75)

A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.” (#76)

HOLINESS CAN REQUIRE MAKING A MESS

Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25).” (#90)

HOLINESS IS ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED, GETTING UNCOMFORTABLE

“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (#98)

For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease. Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough. The bishops of Canada made this clear when they noted, for example, that the biblical understanding of the jubilee year was about more than simply performing certain good works. It also meant seeking social change: ‘For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.'” (#99)

Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” (#101)

“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves. We will find it hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need, unless we are able to cultivate a certain simplicity of life, resisting the feverish demands of a consumer society, which leave us impoverished and unsatisfied, anxious to have it all now. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters. Yet even amid this whirlwind of activity, the Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life.” (#108)

“Such inner strength makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good. It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God (pístis) can also be faithful to others (pistós). They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction.” (#112)

“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’” (#120)

“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite. His compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation. Let us acknowledge our weakness, but allow Jesus to lay hold of it and send us too on mission. We are weak, yet we hold a treasure that can enlarge us and make those who receive it better and happier. Boldness and apostolic courage are an essential part of mission.” (#131)

God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.” (#135)

HOLINESS MEANS ENTERING INTO THE MESSINESS OF GROWTH

“Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.” (#134)

Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil. Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for ‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents … Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.'” (#163)

“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everything be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (#172)

When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off-limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment.” (#175)

Don’t blink

There is nothing everyone is so afraid of as of being told how vastly much he is capable of. You are capable of – do you want to know? – you are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of standing almost any kind of maltreatment, abuse, etc. But you do not wish to know about it, isn’t that so? You would be furious with him who told you, and only call that person your friend who bolsters you in saying: “No, this I cannot bear, this is beyond my strength, etc.” – From “The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard”

I turn to Mary when I just can’t take it anymore.

I am a person who can find myself suddenly overwhelmed. Perhaps I am looking out on the sorrow of the world. I read or hear reports of some tragedy – some dreadful violence – and my heart breaks. It’s senseless and staggering, and the grief is as deep as it is sudden. I can’t take it. So I turn away; I think about something else. I turn the page or change the channel. I look away.

Or sometimes I come across a great joy. I watch my daughter do something for the first time; discover something she’s never experienced before. I get a call from a friend finally home from the hospital – the treatment went better than expected. A long-distance friend is stopping by for a visit. I am overjoyed and overcome with gratitude, and get lost in the celebration. My heart is bursting. So I make a joke to break through the sublime, or I trivialize the moment. I look away.

Sometimes I am battered by banality. It’s not the light or the dark that assaults me, but mundane gray. Another hour of chores. Another cold and frustrating traffic-filled commute. Another busy tone while I wait on hold. Another bill, another task. Tedium seeps into my bones and I want to scream. I daydream or imagine I’m elsewhere. I look away.

And in these moments, when I can catch myself, I turn to my mother. Because Mary never looked away. Mary opened her heart to all that God had to give her. One of the most frequently repeated observations about Mary in Scripture is that she watches and listens, then reflects and ponders.

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sisters, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. (John 19:25)

When Mary was confronted with the glad tidings of the angel, she did not look away. She did not diminish or shirk the joy. She did not, in a moment of self-effacing low self-esteem, deny the blessing and demand God find someone worthier. She embraced it, and cried out in joy thanking God for his blessings and his faithfulness.

pregnant-Mary-joy

 

She did not flee from the suffering of her son. She kept in her heart the prophecy foreseeing that same heart pierced, and she stayed at the foot of the cross through the piercing. She bore witness to it until the end.

Mary accompanied her son and his mission in all the moments in between. She watched and observed her young son faithfully, day in and day out, as he advanced in wisdom and age and favor. She stayed with his disciples after the sorrow, in those strange and fearful and breathless days in the upper room while they all waited for what would come next.

Mary rejoiced and mourned fully, tasting the sweet and the bitter and every flavor in between. She gave each part of her life her full attention and countless hours of reflection, so as to fully receive the gift God was giving her in that moment. I have heard it said that Mary, in her perfect faithfulness, can come off as inhuman – a holy statue, too placid, too “good.” This is not the scriptural Mary. Mary felt more than I have – she felt higher highs and lower lows. In this way, she is more human than I might ever be.

In this new year, I ask for Mary’s strength to be fully present. To sit in my sorrow and that of others and not run or hide from it, and to celebrate with people in their joy and not be embarrassed by it. To take even the dull moments and accept them with open hands, as moments to pause and reflect and to stay faithful.

And when everyone else around me says it’s too much, that it’s beyond my strength, that I have to find a way to shake of these unbearable burdens, I hope I will hear my mother’s voice, clearly and brightly cutting through the din: “You can bear it. You can.

“You are stronger than you feel you are now.”

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven 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.

Fear, darkness, and Advent

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.

photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/
Photo credit: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/interacting-dark-energy/

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.

Joseph_Flickr
Photo credit: Flickr

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 God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to 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.

Quaker lessons for a Catholic girl

I grew up as a Quaker in North Carolina. Now I am a Franciscan Sister in Wisconsin. You may think I have traded hush puppies for cheese curds and simple silence for complicated ritual. But actually I find God constantly holding me in love and light through them both. For me, there is more in common between these two paths than difference.

Especially now as we enter Advent, some particular Quaker sayings speak to me on how to prepare for the Christmas event of the coming of Christ.

hands-candle-flame

QUAKER WISDOM:

Speak only if the words improve upon the silence

The Quaker (officially the Society of Friends) meeting I grew up in was unprogrammed, meaning that our worship service was an hour of silence. During that silence if you felt a “leading” you could speak. Maybe you would share an insight you had that week, a thought on a piece of Scripture, or even sing a song. In any case, there should be a deep prompting that the words you are going to say are worth breaking the holy silence we are all gathered in.

This seems to me a good habit for every day, but especially for Advent. Have I gotten lost already in the Christmas season or am I silently preparing in expectant waiting? Am I speaking from my heart, from a deeper sense of life-giving hope?

I’ll hold you in the Light
Currently, I have a prayer ministry as the coordinator of prayer intentions at our convent. When I was a Quaker, instead of “I’ll pray for you,” it was more common to hear my Quaker friends quickly say, “I’ll hold you in the Light.” They are referring to that Light of Christ that shines in everyone, the unifying communion of God’s love that is always ready to hold us. In the Light, we can see our gifts and our struggles more clearly. In the Light, we are not alone. In the Light, I am completely known as I am.

My heart is always touched deeply by this phrase of love and concern. The term of “holding” signifies to me more than a fleeting prayer. My friend will hold me, sustain me, and even join me in that Light that unites us all. This phrase reminds me that Advent is a time of communal retreat. It’s not something we do alone. The people of faith are preparing for the coming of Christ and together we are united.

That all flesh should keep silence
So, why sit in silence and wait? The foundation of Quakerism is that God communicates directly with each and every person. The Inner Light is within us all. The noise and clutter of the world get in the way. But silence clears a path. For me, personally, sometimes sitting in the silence was also like sitting in the dark. I never knew what was going to come next. I let go of my own expectations, even of my own words, and simply waited. As one Friend states:

The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits He has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of His own Life; that He never leaves Himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; that the measure of light, life, or grace thus given increases by obedience; and that in order clearly to hear the Divine voice speaking within us we need to be still; to be alone with Him, in the secret place of His Presence; that all flesh should keep silence before Him. ~ Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909

I love this! God leaves both “a witness in the heart” as well as in our “surroundings.” As we enter Advent, am I both seeking within and without to see God’s love made visible? Advent as preparation is both about waiting and about seeking at the same time. We know the Light is coming, and the darkness helps us hunger for it more.

“And then, O then, there was one, even Christ Jesus who could speak to thy condition.”

george-fox
George Fox

This is the quintessential Quaker quote that started a movement. George Fox, who founded the Quakers, was an avid seeker. From his journal he records how he traveled around asking questions both of priests and Protestant pastors, but no one seemed to help him. But then, with great joy he heard a voice which told him that Christ Jesus “could speak to thy condition.” God communicated directly. From that all else flows—the silent meetings, simplicity, conviction not to pick up weapons; the sense that every person has dignity and all life is holy.

For me this is also the Advent lesson. As we wait for the Light, time collapses. The beautiful Scripture readings lead us through the three-fold coming of Christ. In the past, Christ was born and changed the world forever. In this very moment as I wait, Christ comes within my own heart. As we try to build the kingdom of justice and peace on earth we anticipate the future fullness of Christ’s coming. Christ indeed does speak to each of us where ever we are in our own condition. Taking the time to turn to God opens up the space for that direct, but often subtle experience of God.

Advent lessons
I will admit that in the convent there is a fair amount of ritual around Advent—special readings, colors (violet), traditions, and songs. (If I hear “O Come Emmanuel” one more time!!!) I’ll never forget the first Sunday I realized that most of the sisters had dressed liturgically and were wearing violet to match the season! But ultimately, it is a time of waiting and expectation. Waiting in silence for the Light is the Quaker’s specialty. I find myself returning to silence and the Quaker wisdom that raised me to come to a deeper appreciation of the season. Truly, Christ has come, is with me now, and will come again. My heart spills over with hope, especially in these darker days. As Brian Wren says so simply, “When God is a child there’s joy in our song. The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong. And none shall be afraid.”

Amen!

About the Rabble Rouser:

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sister Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, playing guitar and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapel tour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.

Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again.  It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.

At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.

I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”

Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.

Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?

I suspect the answer is almost every time.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:

Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.

Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.

Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.

Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.

Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.

We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).

Why I am going to the Border

I am about to leave the beautiful, safe and peaceful Northwoods of Wisconsin and travel to the U.S./Mexico border for the weekend.

I’ll be joining thousands at the SOAW Border Convergence in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico; with other Catholic sisters and members of Giving Voice as we pray and give witness for peace and compassionate immigration reform.

I am going to the border because I want to pray for the beloved deceased and be a peaceful witness.

It is a violent and contentious place where hundreds of people die unnoticed each year. Some are shot by border patrol agents, but most die of heat stroke, dehydration or hypothermia. Plus, much of the violence is spurred by economic disparities and U.S. drug and gun control policies.

Here is a map of locations where human remains were recovered by No More Deaths just in August of 2016:

RHR.Aug16.AZ.NoMoreDeaths
The red dots mark the places at which 16 human remains were found in August. One hundred twenty-five bodies have been discovered in Arizona since the current fiscal year began in October 2015. (Map by Ed McCullough. Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/92300350558/)

I am going to the border because I am concerned about immigrant detention.

In 2010 I wrote about an experience I had praying at an immigration detention center in Chicago. The knowledge I gained that day—the fact that immigrants are denied basic human needs such as hygiene supplies and food once deported—continues to disturb me. The description of humans put in cages makes my heart ache every time they surface in my mind. It is horrific that 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been seized and detained at the U.S. border between October 2015 and March 2016. Plus, I took a course about the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II and read this disturbing article that convinces me we must not detain folks based on race, immigration status nor place of origin.

A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois in June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

I am going to the border because I am a daughter of immigrants.

Much like the migrants that come today, my Norwegian and Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1800s to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families. My Irish great-grandmother came by herself as a teen and never obtained proper papers. But that didn’t make her a bad person. She was hard working and established a strong family—all who contributed to American society.

I am going to the border because others who have done so inspire me.

I am grateful for the witness of the folks who have walked The Migrant Trail and prayed for the dead. I especially appreciate this account of their journey.

I am going to the border because the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s principles of compassionate immigration reform make a lot of sense to me.

I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sure; nations have a right to protect their borders but they also must help keep families together, address root causes of migration, and honor all human dignity.

I am going to the border because I don’t want to be part of a nation that puts up walls.

I agree with Pope Francis’ words, stated after he celebrated Mass at the Ciudad Juárez U.S./Mexican border in February: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Along the same lines I think we need to stop blaming, scapegoating and discriminating. It is time for us to have intelligent and compassionate national conversations about the complex issue of immigration.

I am going to the border because my hometown has been impacted by the current broken immigration policies.

In May 2008 the community of Postville, Iowa, was torn apart by the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. (OK: technically, my hometown is about 10 miles away, but it’s certainly the same community and our Catholic parishes were served by the same priest.) It was discovered that many of the undocumented workers at Agriprocessors meatpacking plant had been told to put an X on a piece of paper when they were hired in order to start working. The forms were falsified social security card documents created by their employers not understood by the people signing them. Many of the immigrants could not read nor write English nor Spanish. I have written more about the horrific Postville immigration raid and can attest to the fact that its impacts continue to be felt in Iowa as well as in Guatemala.

Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville March, July 2008
Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville Immigration Raid Vigil, July 2008.

I am going to the border because compassionate immigration reform is long overdue.

I don’t even know how many times in the past 20 years I’ve called or written members of congress and asked for them to help pass legislation that would reform the immigration system. Or, asked them to vote against something that would hurt immigrants. Or, asked them to help protect a particular immigrant from detention or deportation. I’ve distributed postcards, signed petitions, led prayer services and attended vigils. The fact that I have not seen much progress occur in this time is frustrating and exhausting. But, I will not stop working at it because people’s lives are literally on the line.

I am going to the border because I want our nation to see that Catholic sisters are crying out for the protection of the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

I have learned that a major aspect of my vocation as a Catholic sister means that I am living a prophetic life—a life that gives witness to the fullness of God’s reign just by virtue of its countercultural nature. My vows have me saying “no” to our culture’s obsession with wealth, sex and independence so that I can say “yes” to a life of prayer, community and service for the greater good; for the glory of God. Living this way means I must constantly advocate for the poor and proclaim God’s mercy and peace to all; I must use my voice for those our society has deemed voiceless.

You can follow Convergence on the U.S./Mexico Border online this weekend by searching the hashtag #ConvergenceAtTheBorder on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up with the activities of us Giving Voice sisters in particular by searching the hashtag #GivingVoice. If you’d like more news coverage of the event, call your local media outlets and ask them to cover the story. There are resources for media here.

I hope you will pray in solidarity with us this weekend and help us advocate for peace, mercy, and compassionate immigration reform. Let us pray that we can be a nation that honors and protects the dignity of all people, especially those who are poor and fleeing violence. Let us pray for the dead and the protection of all life. Let us pray for the children who die and are detained.

Pray with us from this portion of the prayer service we will pray at the border this weekend:

Jesus, you who were a migrant, we call to you in one voice with those gathered at the border. We pray for all the people in our world who are on the move, escaping violence and poverty, and for all those who live, hiding and in fear, in our own country. God, we pray for all politicians and for all citizens, that we may be filled with your compassion. May our policies promote peace and keep families together. We pray especially for all the children caught in this web of oppression; protect them and their parents so that they may grow up in freedom. We continue to pray for comprehensive immigration reform that will, finally, offer justice for immigrants. Glory to you, God, for all that you have given us. We give you thanks, and we ask you for strength and courage. May we never tire of working for the common good; may we never lose your vision of a world of peace and love for all.  

Amen.

Getting ready for the party of my life

For the past three months, I have been happily preparing for the party of my life. This party will include a beautiful Mass, a locally-sourced dinner and a lively reception. The party of my life will celebrate my perpetual profession of vows with my community.

Preparation for my final vows has been busy and enjoyable. But, not everything has been simple and easy. Initially, I was really challenged by the task of balancing community traditions, my own personal hopes and the needs of my guests. Not everything has gone perfectly. I have had to re-learn lessons about flexibility and detachment. I have had to deal with disappointments and then adapt. Most recently, I learned that my friend who planned to offer the reflection during the Mass could no longer come. To this news, my incorporation director responded, “Even the prep for vows is its own formative experience!”

As I prepare for my final vows, I notice that there are certain questions that come up again and again, for me and the people around me.

Like a wedding, but not a wedding 

“How are the final vow preparations coming along?” This is the most common and conversational question I have heard from all sorts of people: friends, family and other sisters in my community.

To this question I like to respond with…

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

photo credit: ishareimage.com

 

faith is hard

It isn’t easy to have faith.

Actually, it’s quite hard to live like a Christian, especially if we keep hearing that showing up for church on Sundays is good enough. Really, we’re supposed to be non-conformists of this world, conforming instead to the radical, non-violent,  loving ways of Christ. Our faith life needs to be deep, prayerful and solid, and must direct all else in our life.  God really is supposed to be our All in All.

I wonder if the increase of secularization in our culture is responsible for the myth that faith is only appropriate when its private and doesn’t offend others.  I am concerned about how our youth are learning to practice our faith from us. Is it really okay for us to live in luxury, privilege and glamor while others suffer? Why do we practice our religion? Is it because we love God and the people of God (the Church)? Are we willing to go through major conversions in order to grow in union with God? Or, are we only willing to live our faith if it doesn’t ask us to change too much or get uncomfortable?

Certainly, living a life of Christian faith is simple in principle. It is a simple way, a way of Love. In actuality, it’s pretty challenging and demanding.

I am finding that it’s not easy to teach teenagers this principle- -the idea that having faith might require you to change, be uncomfortable, stand up for the vulnerable, make hard choices and be radically different from what popular society says is cool and acceptable.

I recently showed the following video to some of my students. Afterwards, when I asked the students to silently pray and contemplate how the story related to their lives, the classroom felt pretty intense. Faith is hard.

The good news is that if we really have deep faith that causes us to grow and change we never know what we might be able to do. Our faith strengthens us and unites us with a power greater than ourselves.

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  -Matthew 17:20

Yes, as we grow in union with God, nothing is impossible. Because, for God, nothing is impossible and we are instruments of God.

Here’s another video, this time about how awesome it is to be an instrument of God:

Back from the Dead

http://www.cbn.com/media/player/index.aspx?s=/vod/SAF13v5_WS

Ok, faith is hard. But, its worth it. So may our faith increase, Amen!

the weirdness of witnessing

It’s not easy living a public life. Sometimes I’d rather be anonymous or just completely unnoticed.  It’s a lot of pressure because those who know that I am a Franciscan sister, a Christian and a modern follower of Jesus are paying attention to my moves.  What type of picture am I painting about what radical Christian living looks like?

When I was a teen in the 90’s I listened to a lot of DC Talk.  On some recorded versions of their song “What if I Stumble?”  there is a really profound and challenging statement for all Christians to heed:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door and deny Him with their lifestyle.  That is what a unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” 

It’s lent now.  I am going to be honest with you, because lent helps me feel like I can be.

I stumble as I try to follow Jesus.  I am concerned about what my lifestyle says about Christians.  I am totally aware that I am a sinner.  When I am really honest about who I am I can quickly see that I am just as messed up as everyone else, in my own Julia sort of way.  I can be mean, selfish, lazy, rude, and prideful.  I have bad moods and don’t always show up to serve with a joyful spring in my step.  Just because I am a sister doesn’t mean I am better at living a Christian life than any other Christian.  Maybe God called me to be a sister because this lifestyle personally helps me do a little better job at being a Christian that other life options would.

One of the criticisms I receive about this blog is that it is too much about me.  If I were really dedicated to the poor and the suffering maybe I’d tell more stories about them.  Do I think that I am so great that I need to show off what I am up to?  I am not a journalist and it is not appropriate for me to tell the stories of other people.  My job is to be true to who I am.

No, this blog isn’t all about me.  It’s about Jesus and how Jesus is living today.  This blog is supposed to be about how young Christians follow Jesus in today’s world.  I suppose my life is an example.  I hope that it’s a good one.  I am really not that great and my message isn’t original.  I am one voice in a big, beautiful, diverse community of disciples.  I am one woman who is trying to be faithful and is struggling on my walk with God just like everyone else.

The thing is, I feel called to witness.  For as long as I can remember, I have been in love with God and I am eager to share my Love.  I believe Christians are supposed to act and live differently than the rest of the world.  I feel called to live a more public life of faith that shows others an alternative Gospel lifestyle.  I feel like I need to give a testimony about the greatness of God with my life.  St. Francis directed his earliest brothers to “preach the gospel at all times but only use words when necessary.”  I’ve been taught that the boldness of testimony is part of Christian living.

It’s a big job to be bold and put myself out there all the time.  I can’t say I love it.  God and I get into little arguments about it sometimes.  I complain that I want to be a “normal” woman and I am sick of the standards that attention gives me.  Sometimes I cry about it and sometimes I get really crabby.  (See?! I told you I am not that great! A holy woman would serve her Love with pure joy!)

God keeps inviting me and encouraging me.  God shows me that the world is hungry for people who are being alternative and radical with their faith and devotion.  Jesus is like a coach who brushes the dust of my sin off my uniform and shoves me back in the game.  He seems to believe in me and totally fills me with the graces I need to keep going.  I gotta try to keep loving.

I am so grateful that I am not in this alone. I couldn’t be and that’s the whole point.  Christians are community people. We have to be. If we weren’t community we wouldn’t be anything.  We need to acknowledge our weaknesses and cry out to God and one another for help.  Even when the worst of us comes out, we’re still one body.  It’s the life of community that helps shine us up- like jewels- so we can be more beautiful.  Rough edges get worn down and we help each other be holy.

So, if I do stumble and mess up, I am sorry.  I pray that this season of Lent helps convert me- and all of us- a little closer to Christ. I pray that my time in the desert helps me become more enlightened about what my growing edges are.  Once I am enlightened, I trust God that I will grow.  I pray that I can be a good sister to others who are struggling in their discipleship.  I pray that how I live helps Christians look good in this world and inspires belief.  And, I am so thankful that we’re all in this together. Let’s pray for each other. With God’s grace, we’ll move the right way.

"desert way" by Julia Walsh, FSPA