Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Discover the Other

There are four core values to my program here in Philly: Simple Living, Justice, Spirituality, and Community. All are pillars of the SSJ Mission Corps and define the way in which I live my daily life and how I interact not only with those I serve, but also with the women with whom I live.

Saturday my community and I sat down to examine the value of simple living in our lives and in the life of this program. After a day filled with reflection and sharing, I was reminded of many things and had a few new things made strikingly apparent to me.

First of all, simple living is not about money- it's about spending. That is, to live simply is about being conscious of how you spend- how you spend your money, how you spend your time, how your life is spent with others and to what ends you spend. In the case of a full time volunteer, money is often the primary focus of simple living; I mean, you figure in a single day at my old job I made more money that I am alloted for my personal stipend monthly here in Philly. If that type of shift doesn't make you conscious of money and, in a way, force you to live more simply, I don't know what will.

Second, simple living is not about money- it's about living. To live simply you must simplify your life. Seems obvious, huh? and it is, but sometimes the most obvious principles are the hardest to adhere to. Simple living is about getting rid of excess in you life. By discarding the stuff that gets in the way of truly living, a new freedom can be found and in the process, we discover that living simply allows for greater spiritual and relational awareness, if you but let it. That's not to say it's easy by any stretch of the imagination. Whether you're clearing distractions out of you life or trying to harness freedom and be actively aware... it's hard. But as I hope, pray, and strive... it's worth it.

Third, simple living is not about money- it's about living. I know, I know- second verse, same as the first- but just hear me out. Simple living is not only about learning to live more simply, allowing life to take on deeper meaning in a striped-down, raw form, it's also about living with others. That is, living in solidarity with other people.

The simple life that I live here in Philly is extravagant compared with some of the people I work with and opulent when compared to people around the world. I live simply by choice; lots of other people don't get that choice. Instead, they are making ends meet and scrounging together what little they have in order to survive. And guess what? They manage; they're happy; and they have all they need. My choice to live simply is in union with my brothers and sisters around the world. That choice needs to be conscious or simple living can easily devolve into a money saving lifestyle or a self-righteous pat on the back.

I bike to work each day not for exercise or fresh air or pride or budget constraints but because the man who's home I enter that afternoon may have no way to transport the furniture I give him or may have no quick way to get to the contracting job he works to make a living and I need to understand that. The woman who comes into the community center in need of a coat, having walked from her home blocks, if not miles, away, will get the assistance she needs and I will happily serve her. But somehow, having walked the twenty minutes to work in freezing temperatures this morning, I know, through true compassion, what the need is that I am serving and, if only in one sense, the woman who I am working with. It is simple steps like this that open the door to change. Change of perspective, change of heart, change in the world.

Experience breeds compassion. To have even the slightest sense of the pain/need/dream I am serving in another, I must know what it means, and ultimately feels like, to be in pain, need, or hope. There is no way I can sympathize with every person in the world, but by making an effort to live honestly, consciously, and truly I can empathize with each person I encounter. And even when empathy does not come, I have the ability to ask that person to share their joy, pain, and/or need with me that I might come to know it and grow in compassion.

And so this call to live simply goes far beyond my own life. It is one that helps me find God in the world, in others, and deep within me. They say, "Live simply, so that others might simply live" but as an addendum to that I'd say, "Live simply, so that you might recognize the really complicated (i.e. important) parts."

The last three days have been busy with the crunch of Christmas upon us at the parish. To the outside observer these days would figure to be days like most others. Sunday I attended Mass at Visitation, visited St. Agatha/St.James in University City, and took part in my community's weekly spirituality night. Monday we were swamped by people coming to the community center/parish for help with everything from utilities and furniture to food and Christmas gifts. Today, Tuesday, a busy Monday gave way to a day filled with tasks and deeds- a mother/widow in need of any assistance possible to keep her electricity on for the month, requests for donations presented to local business owners and managers, and a neighbor turned friend in need of pain relief and simple companionship.

These experiences, which were once new to me, are now commonplace in my weekly duties. The impact they have on me all depends on the moment in which I encounter them. At times they retain the wonder of spiritual insight and awakening, while at others they are simply what I do, nothing groundbreaking, just the everyday call of my ministry. Yet, with a reawakened connection to simple living, I have taken note of something resonating throughout my experiences over the last three days. Be each moment mundane or marvelous, there is in each moment an opportunity to find the other (and in some cases be the other) and be joined in compassion.

Simple living isn't about money and it isn't easy, but luckily we don't have to do it alone. Compassion is an act of relationship, done in union with God & with others. As the poster that hangs in our living room, and consumes me each time I take the time to be captured by it, says so well: "We live and work to bring all people into union with God and with one another."

That's the life we're all called to live and who knows? In the process of seeking such a simple goal, we might just get swept up with one another and with God- C'est la vie.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Photographic Memories: November

At three and a half months into this experience, I can say that I am becoming settled into the city and discovering the vision that it is giving me. From the banks of the Delaware to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, my eye has been caught by many things. Below is a glimpse into my artistic life in November. As the days grow shorter and the city's streets grow colder, new layers of urban introspection are revealed, images set into my memory. Below you will find them ready to be explored, glimpses of my journey. May they show you what I have seen and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Come then."

"Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" has been on repeat in my head since Sunday; it may not have helped that I played it on repeat Sunday afternoon before heading off to Mass, solidly cementing it in my psyche for the liturgical new year. Then, I just happened to wake up Monday morning with it dancing across my mind. Really what could be better than awaking to a chorus of rejoice after a splendid long weekend?

All of my blog friends out there in InternetLand posted their Advent reflection on Sunday. Not this chica. Have no fear, though! In the life of a full-time volunteer (and with the delay that has recently been placed on my brain), Tuesday is the new Sunday.

In the midst of holiday preparations and work stresses (which in some cases are one in the same), "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" has echoed in my ears. How redundant is it that we say "Come, God with Us, Come!"? If God is with us, why then must we call on God to come? I know, I know- Jesus is God with us, the incarnate presence of the Divine; I do have a religious studies degree, you know, so it's not a question of what Advent is or the preparation that takes place during this time, a readying of ourselves for the coming of God both in the Christ child on Christmas but also at the end of time. Instead, I wonder in what ways I have been crying out to a God that is so close that s/he is intertwined with my very being and doing.

To sing out, "Oh come, oh come God with us" is less of a plea to God than with myself. God is already here, I but need to recognize it. If I seek, I will find; if I cry out, God will hear me; if I dare to hope, the door to Hope will be opened. After all isn't that what this season is about? Hope.

There are lots of reasons to lose hope. When people can't feed their families, when a woman is without a coat to keep her warm in her barely heated house, when people you've never seen before show up for assistance days before a holiday because they heard you were giving out assistance. There's no easy way to grapple with those things. How do you do justice when you don't know where justice needs to be served, where charity goes in vain, and what/ if an authentic, basic need is being or needs to be met.

Those reasons to lose hope can easily transform into reasons not to hope. How can I have faith in people who are seemingly playing the system? How can those in need be rightfully served when so much has yet to be done to meet their most basic rights and needs? I can choose (to the exception of my conscience) not to serve them, but that does neither of us any good. It is much easier to choose not to hope.

That is, to completely turn one's self off to the possibility of goodness, of justice, of righteousness. Yet, to choose not to hope is perhaps the worst thing one could do. Without hope, there is no promise. Faith cannot survive without hope. And unlike grace, which is freely given and can be recognized as it acts, hope is something that is inspired and which grows out of our being. Sometimes, even, hope exists within us without our fully recognizing it.

Ultimately, if I want others to retain hope, I myself must be free enough to hope. In a way, seeing someone else hope gives us permission to hope in our own lives. The call to hope is one of openness and faith. Remaining open to God, faith can flourish- I but need to bring my whole heart. If I can do that, there can be hope. With my whole heart, I must trust that when I call out to God to come, hope in finding God will allow me to see what has been there all along. And as I cry out "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel", God will respond, "Come then. I've been here all along."

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Landscape of Choices

Disclaimer: If you are looking forward to the SSJ Mission Corps Newsletter, you probably shouldn't read the following entry, as it is my piece in the newsletter. Consider yourself warned. If you're not waiting on the newsletter (or just can't wait), dive on in!

As always, thanks for
reading & enjoy!

Life is full of choices. Some are simple and others aren't. Every choice we make brings with it its own set of circumstances and consequences. And as a wise friend once told me, in choosing not to make a decision, you have nonetheless made one.

This entry has been in the works since my first week of ministry at Visitation BVM parish. Actually, that's a lie- this piece has been writing itself since I began my journey into the Mission Corps. When and where that journey began, I can't exactly pinpoint, but I do know that it has brought with it a number of decisions over the past few months.

A year ago I made the choice to actively pursue the idea of doing a year of service. That decision led me to choose to leave a full time job in a field I enjoyed to see what possibilities awaited me. Arriving in Philadelphia two months ago, I plunged into a world of new possibilities, challenges, and, yes, more choices.

Some of those choices were conscious, like living in community, opting for a simple lifestyle, and committing to remain focused daily on spirituality and justice; others were unconscious, like choosing to live more reflectively, learning to love a seemingly unloved community, and entering into conversation anew everyday with strangers, God, the world, and, more often than not, all three at once.

Each day, before my feet even hit the floor, I have already made choices that will impact how I go about my day. As I wake up, I remember that I have chosen to live in Kensington. This, I am aware, is a choice that could be changed at any time, all I need to do is say the words: I quit, I’m done, take me home.

My options are many and because of my place in the world, they are (for the most part) boundless. My education ensures that certain doors will always be open to me. My skin color grants me access to people and places that those I serve would never be able to reach otherwise; it also makes it perfectly clear that I do not fully belong to this community. Yet, the color of my skin gives me the ability to advocate for my neighbors. It carries an invisible weight and authority with it. Classifying me as an outsider, it may distance me initially from those I seek to serve, but ultimately it gives me the chance to shorten the distance that must be covered in order to meet their needs.

I am a product of the choices I have made and those choices have led me to where I am today. My options abound. I have the luxury and blessing to choose to be here. The individuals and families I meet everyday do not have that choice.

The single mother on 5th Street, who has five children and is trying to make ends meet, is the same age as me, yet finding ways to relate is difficult. We are of the same generation, but her life and mine are radically different. It is not simply a few choices that lie between us, but the breadth of lives lived on different planes; I wonder if we ever had the same list of choices laid out before us.

Still, as I stand on her porch, we find ourselves face to face. She has chosen to let me into her home and no matter how many different choices we’ve made, I must respect her vulnerability and find a way to give her tools that might make her next decision a little bit easier; be that by giving her a voucher for furniture so that she doesn’t have to choose between food and furnishings for her family or offering a compassionate ear to hear the story, her story, which no one else cares to listen to.

As I ride to the Bevilacqua Center on my bike each day, I am aware of the choices that are being made all around me. There are those individuals, junkies and prostitutes, whose choices have stranded them on the corner of Somerset and Kensington. Pulling up to the double spires of Visitation, I pass parents walking their children through the doors of the parish’s school. Navigating the physical and systemic dangers of the neighborhood, these parents sacrifice financially so that their children might have opportunities in their lives- opportunities that are dreamed of by families today and fostered in young minds as they’re taught to think and make choices with faith and goodness at the forefront of their minds.

In my time here thus far, I’ve borne witness to an ever changing landscape of choices. By choice or not, the neighbors I visit may never leave Kensington and there is nothing wrong with that. The choices they face are not as simple as good and bad. I can hope, though, that the little bit of assistance I can give them might empower them to discover the grander scheme of decisions available to them.

Poverty doesn’t need to be an endless cycle. Abuse doesn’t need to be proliferated. Choices can be discovered anew each day if someone is there to compassionately and realistically say it’s ok to hope.

By listening and being present in my actions, I try to say that to those I work with. In return, I choose to accept the invitation from each person I encounter to do the same- to find hope under it all. That’s a choice. Life is full of them and each moment I take the chance to say yes, new doors are opened.

Sure, I have made plenty of decisions in my lifetime, but no matter how many choices I could have made, one thing is clear: today, there is no better choice than the one I made to be here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Strike Anywhere.

Here is my inspiration as I write tonight, a beautiful revelation by Elyse Raby that rightfully stands on it's own:
"I am a theologian.

Not because I know something that the average lay folk doesn’t. Just because I love God and seek to know this all-pervasive God in any way I can. Because the only way for me to make sense of my world – internal and external – is by finding God’s fingerprints in it.

I am alive.

The depths of my heart and soul – my insides – are buzzing and burning and churning, like a pot of water about to reach boiling point. Because of some way that Lisa Cahill spoke about knowing and loving God in community. Because it was real and alive in her, it just seemed natural. It was not a theory, or a revelation, or a proposition. It just was. It is in her.

Theology is in me and God is in me. I know that because I feel it moving. Like an infant leaping in my womb with joy, at the moment the greeting reached my ears. It is energy. It is bubbles rising faster and faster until the water boils over – onto roommates, friends, strangers, photos of sunflowers.

It is a moment of myself speaking to me, saying 'I need to go to grad school.

The best grad school.'

Believing in myself. I can. This is what I do. Not because I am the best at it, but because it is written in my soul, carved into the fibers of my being. Because I am, I exist, within it.

I need to go to grad school, not because there are many things that I should know but don’t, but because this flame needs oxygen. This flame knows it can be a wildfire. I can take down California.

A voice cried out in the desert of my heart. It said, 'this is you.'

It was my voice.

It was God’s voice.

The Holy Spirit, it sets fires.

Call 911.

Tell them not to come."

- Elyse Raby

After that, all I can say is it's funny sometimes how lives coincide...

Tonight was a long night. You know one of those nights when you're tired and can't really focus, even when you really want to? When the person in front of you is the most important person right then and there and you can't seem to connect. The moment passes and you move on, mourning a lost moment, lamenting that intent could not be grasped and try as you may your ears would not listen. You may not be able to listen as much as you should, to hear all that is there, but without knowing it your heart did.

Then something falls into place. Another conversation, the same night, a lackadaisical stupor, making conversation for conversation's sake, humoring cordiality. The joke, though, is on me.

From a smoldering space, sparks fly. Simple questions develop into more. So what did you talk about tonight? Could it be that we don't know how this all turns out? What is it that you don't connect with in teaching? Why then teach on an upper level? Isn't being a professor something more than developing knowledge and researching? There's no way teaching can be an afterthought for a professor, for isn't to be a professor to first and foremost discover and live out the vocation of positing knowledge? Needless to say, as smoke rose from our conversation sparks of intuition, belief, and core truth flew.

Blah, blah, blah, BAM.

Vocation. That's a big word. A big word with lots of meaning on the small scale. It can also be a scary word if all you've ever known of it is huge things. But I love this word. Well, not just the word but the entire notion and concept of vocation. Vocation is that which stirs deep within you; it is who you truly are. No matter what you are doing, if it is truly and genuinely lived out, is vocation. It's a big word but ultimately it is a be all not an end all.

A desired end is not vocation. It is not a dream nor a wish. Vocation is not becoming something; it is the something etched inside of me, the something I am constantly uncovering and discovering anew, it is my very being.

Can it be scary? Yes. That may be why my conversation partner left after that last point... maybe the more important question to ask is "why is it scary?" Fear? perhaps. Or is it more so lack of humility? An inability to recognize who you are and to be that person most honestly and forthrightly.

If you aren't ready to humble yourself to the fact that you may not be able to know it all ( or you may not even fully know or be your true self), then true vocation may be a long time coming. But if you can embrace the freedom of unknowing, the peace of slowly feeling out what God has etched out inside of you, then maybe the deep passion and yearning of vocation will strike anywhere.

God likes to start fires. Maybe the friction of our being is just enough to ignite the match God intends to drop within us. From there, all that needs to be done is to stand back and see how the flames rise.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

October Skies & Pumpkin Pies

Bruce & I are still out and about. Although, I must admit toward the end of the month, it got a little chilly to go on long rides with him. Alas, we still enjoy the ride to work together and the occasional venture out into Philadelphia on a larger scale.

As I said before:
For the last month, I've been out and about seeing and settling into life in the city of brotherly love. I hope to make photos a regular (see: hopefully once a month, if not more often) feature of this blog. Some will be explained, others will speak for themselves, some will do both, and even more, I would hope, will take on their own voice and vision.

Below are glimpses from October, from views from the Ben Franklin Bridge to our trip to Ellis Island with the sisters and fall foliage & Philly sights. May they show you what I have seen and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.