Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rights & Responsibilities

As a New Year's resolution of sorts, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, who I'm currently working with as a Mission Corps volunteer, have pledge to renew their commitment to justice. As part of this renewal, they are exploring the ten core principles of Catholic Social Teaching in the weeks leading up to Lent through recorded reflections on YouTube. Justice is a deep and abiding part of the charism and mission of the sisters and their associates. In conjunction with this project, I was asked to write and record one such reflection on the core value of rights & responsibilities. Don't know anything about this principle or how it might be tied into the SSJs? Below is my reflection, if you're interested give it a read & if you're lazy or want to explore multimedia, check out the video.

If you were to search rights and responsibilities in Google, you would get over 7.6 million results in the time it takes me to finish this sentence. That’s a lot of rights and a whole lot of responsibilities. They are the basic building blocks of Catholic Social Teaching and are inherently connected- to our being, to Christ’s message, and to each other. And as it might seem, the premise of the principle of rights and responsibilities is simple: we are each endowed with basic human rights and as a result have certain responsibilities.

Our rights are three-fold: the right to life and its basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare; the right to dignity; and the right to take part in the decisions that affect our lives. Too often when basic human rights are mentioned the responsibility, both personal and global, that accompanies those rights is all but forgotten. Yet, it is Christ’s call to us to serve one another as we serve him- this means taking responsibility. Responsibility for protecting the rights of, providing a voice for, and sharing our means with our brothers and sisters.

If my time with the Sisters of St. Joseph has taught me anything it is that “The Sisters of St. Joseph are about relationships.” We are bound together and must be dependent on one another if God’s transformative love is ever going to work for change through us and deep within us. This means bring people into union with God and neighbor through love without distinction- the quintessential care for the dear neighbor that the Sisters of St. Joseph hold so close to their hearts. For me, these values resound the call to protect the rights of the least of these, the responsibility to love as Christ did and the opportunity we are given each moment to give dignity to and restore justice in the world in which we live and work.

Each day, my own work at the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center and Visitation Parish in Kensington demands that I recognize that many people’s most basic rights are not being fulfilled and requires me to work so that those I encounter might feel the love of Christ, take responsibility for their rights, and in the process regain the dignity that has been taken from them. Be it the little girl in freezing temperatures who has only sandals on her feet or the family sleeping on the floor of a house they can barely afford to rent, let alone furnish. These are my dear neighbors and these are the people I am responsible to love without regard for immigration status, race, gender, mental capabilities, or marital status. Their rights are the same as mine. Their rights are the same as yours. If we are going to be able to share in our humanity, we need to compassionately recognize our rights and our responsibility to one another.

That responsibility is each one of ours. My rights have rarely, if ever, been compromised and I’m guessing if you’re watching right now you can relate. My challenge then, as we strengthen our commitment to justice as Sisters of St. Joseph and Associates, is to consider what your rights are, and if you are responsibly using these rights. Living simply, cherishing that which you have, and making decisions that stand up for and respect the rights of others.

This is part of our duty as faith-filled people: to be conscious of our living and being. After all, the blessing of life comes with responsibilities that reach far beyond our rights- 6.8 billion to be exact… and that’s just if you search for every person you can find.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Be the Rust-oleum you wish to see in the world.

My friend Kate, who writes the delightful & insightful blog Say Yes! Change Things. (which is featured with a bunch of other wondering blogs on the right side of this page), has struck a nerve on a topic that has been on my mind over the last few weeks.

Like many thoughts that whiz through my head, I didn't have specific language for the phenomenon. A quote that incited Kate's most recent post, "Care not to rustout?", though, gives voice to a very real threat to those consciously (and unconsciously) trying to make a difference in the world.

"There is a Silent Killer in America – “Rustout”. Burnout can wear down your body, but rustout can wipe out your soul & spirit. Rustout is the slow death that follows when we stop making the choices that keep life alive. Rustout means we are no longer growing, but at best, simply maintaining. Rustout is the opposite of burnout. Burnout is overdoing. Rustout is underbeing.”

Underbeing. I don't want that. The thought of it makes my skin crawl. I know the feeling of being worn down, but to allow your soul and spirit to be completely wiped out... that is a lower level- a demeaning. It is there that one literally loses their meaning, be it by losing sight of what is most important in life or by allowing the driving force behind one's life, their passion, to deteriorate.

Burnout at least connotes a blaze of glory before leaving a shell of being behind; rustout, on the other hand, wears away one's being slowly, almost unknowingly, until a hollowed shell coasts along without real purpose or drive. Honestly, I wouldn't want either to occur to me (who would?) but there is something deeply troubling about rustout in the way that it silently stalks its victims.

It could happen to any of us if we let it. But that's just it: you have to let it.

We all know people who have let it happen to them. They are the people who have that space in their eyes where a glimmer used to be. The people who had their dream crushed at some point and never regained their footing or allowed themselves to dream again. They are the people who weigh heavily on those around them, who have an air to them you can't quite pin down.

Worst of all, somehow it is contagious. Rust spreads. It corrodes the spirit and wounds the soul. And even if a spot of it is scrubbed away, it still leaves behind tarnish, if not a hole. Changing the space, altering the being, and compromising the integrity of what/who it clings to.

The risk is there and so is the challenge. The challenge to remain conscious of what you are doing- not to slide into the comfort of mediocrity or routine- to live intentionally. The people I admire most in this life are those who are able, in the midst of everything, to continue to live with such intention. They are the people who dare to have passion. The people who radiate life. They are the people who share joy, hope, and peace without even knowing it, who have an unmistakable air to them that you can't quite pin down but want to bask in, if just for a little while.

We each have the ability to be those type of people. It means never losing your sense of wonder and remaining dedicated to what is really important. To make sure that the rust isn't able to creep in we need to, as Kate so aptly says, "pray, be of service, be generous, [and] seek peace and justice, in small ways and in large ones."

No single person can keep the world perfectly preserved. Perhaps though, if we each seek to become those who inspire, those who live intentionally and passionately, we may be able to counteract such underbeing. Not by being extraordinary, but by simply striving to be the greatest version of ourselves we can. That's not easy (and it may seem extraordinary at times), but I believe we can handle it. Constantly shining beyond the rust by refusing to forget who I am meant to be and being willing enough to become who I am.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Moment of Touch

It's never easy to play second fiddle. To come into a situation where someone else has already left their mark; there's no way you could fill their shoes or play the role they did, no matter how hard you try, at least not in the exact way they did. And that's for good reason: You are not them; relationships, at their essence, are non-transferable.

Each and everyday I meet new people. On any given Thursday, I could be in seven different houses, meeting seven different families, finding God in seven different ways. On a Monday, a dozen people could come in the door of the center for help and with a brief phone call from the secretary at the front desk I am with them- called into their lives, shaking hands, packaging food, picking out coats, and taking down personal information and life details for later exploration. Not with Sally.

Sally is the woman who lives in a row house on the same block as Visitation. She is a widow and, for all intents and purposes, she is a shut in. She suffers from emphysema, the result of life long smoking and a pack a day (two on bad days) habit. To Sally, I am the new Mary Beth. I am a substitute, at best, certainly not a replacement, one who could never quite live up to the real thing... or at least that's what I thought.

Mary Beth is the volunteer who worked at my ministry site last year. I can't say that she is the volunteer who did my job last year, because the jobs we do, while similar, are very different. We have both visited homes for the St. Vincent de Paul Society but with the addition of the community center to the parish over the summer, my job has become much more focused on managing social outreach through and for the community center and by extension the parish.

Mary Beth is the executor of Sally's estate. She is often a topic of conversation when I go to visit Sally; popular topics include the great job she now has in Washington and the time she invited Sally to Mass at the Mission Corps house for Christmas last year, a story I hear almost every other visit.

So I was surprised when the pastor, Fr. Bruce told me that I needed to go see Sally right away in mid-December. I had been there earlier in the week to talk and had gotten her a new winter jacket, what could be so pressing that I needed to get to Sally as soon as possible. I didn't bother to put on my jacket, better to jog the block then to smell entirely like smoke when I returned to work. I knocked on Sally's door and she slowly answered, a pained look on her face and a slowness to her walk that was more than her normal shortness of breath. I sat down and told her Fr. Bruce had told me she'd called for me. "Yes," she said wincing,"I need your help."

She had kidney stones and the only relief she could get was a Bengay patch on her lower back. She had tried to apply it herself along with regular Bengay cream but to no avail. The lower back is not a do it yourself job. She asked if I could help her. "Of course,"I responded and almost before I had finished my sentence she was moving to her feet, visibly pained by any and every movement. She gently handed me a patch and lifted her sweatshirt while facing me. We had reached a new level in our relationship.

I didn't yet know to heat the patch, I would only learn in subsequent visits to put the patch under my leg while we talked to warm it. I peeled open the packaging and removed the patch. The smell of medicated wintergreen rose to my nose. I pressed the tacky side of the patch gently to her skin. She jumped at the chill and then the medicine kicked in. I massaged the patch into place to make sure it stuck, my hands grazing her bare flesh.

A sense of ease entered the air. Sally lowered her sweatshirt and I insisted she lay back down. She apologized for having to call me over- no apology needed I assured her. I asked about the stones and how she was feeling. We talked, covering topics we've touched on a million times before: her cat, Tiny, her son's impending release from prison, her lack of appetite, her husband and how much he meant to her, and the state of the neighborhood.

After some time I left to go back to work, my hands smelling of Bengay and my fingers remembering the feeling of Sally's skin beneath their touch. Sally scolded me for not having a jacket and I told her to call any time she needed help. And she has. The priests of the parish insisting that she will call the rectory and yell my name for relief.

Sally now hugs me and declares that I am a "ghetto girl." A title she proudly states applies to herself and Mary Beth. That's what they always used to call each other. I am one of them and I wonder when that happened.

For me, it was that moment of touch. I am present to all the people I meet (or at least I try to be) but there is a big difference between a listening presence and true, bodily presence. The unique sensation of flesh on flesh. It is very real and very human. To touch another's body and feel it react creates a new intimacy. There is vulnerability and grace to be found in that.

I can feel that moment. The memory of it is triggered deep within me and while the details of our conversation fade, that touch does not. And I wonder, did Christ ever forget those he touched? The lepers and the blind people he healed- each one had a connection through touch with Christ. For healing to happen they needed to touch, not because healing is somehow linked to touch, no, they needed to touch to believe that change could happen. Such belief comes from a connection, a presence, a belief and care by those who touch us. Jesus touched those in need and changed their lives. We are called to personally touch those we encounter, such a touch changes hearts and builds relationships.

Too often our interactions are superficial. Strangers enter our lives and leave on the turn of a dime. Next week I will serve a whole bunch of people, many of whom I will never see again. I need to remind myself that they deserve to be cared for too.

I wonder how much of Jesus's ministry was spent listening to people's stories and reaching out to what needed to be touched in them at that moment. He seems to have never tired of what he did and even when he couldn't seem to fully reach others (ex. the rich young man) he still managed to make the best of it.

I can hope to reach out like that in/with my life. If I do, God is bound to touch me and that's the type of feeling you don't forget- it changes you, it heals you, it stays with you, and it makes you stay in touch with what's all around you.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

With Love from December

With 2011 upon us, the future catches my attention. As the frost sets in and winter winds come and go, memories of December find their own place among that which I treasure. Lunar eclipse, New York decorated for Christmas, the light show at Wanamaker's, the busy-ness of the holidays at Visitation, and the first snow of the season. Those memories prevail if but only in my mind; as I look back on the month and end of 2010, my eye has focused on love. Scattered throughout life, even in the places it is least expected. A surprise of abundance captured in each frame and overflowing into the new year. May these glimpses of love show you what I have seen and reveal what your eyes are meant to see.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Epiphany People

Today we celebrate the Epiphany. As we greet the new year, there is much to be grateful for & much yet to be discovered. The following is a reflection I wrote as a part of the Fairfield University Alumni Advent Reflection Series. Tidings of peace, joy, and discovery to you all.

Matthew 2: 1-12

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage."
When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel."
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star's appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
"Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage."
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.

They had traveled miles upon miles following the star. This was something they had dedicated their lives to; they knew the stars like the backs of their hands, their rising, falling, and all that went with those movements. And yet, upon reaching Jerusalem, the magi had no answers and but one question: Where was the newborn king of the Jews?

All that they knew had drawn them to this place and this moment. Seeing the sign - the star - they were drawn forth and they knew what they had to do. The prophets had foretold this moment; their studies confirmed the sign, and their feet had carried them from distant lands.

Finding the place of Christ's birth, the magi were overcome with joy at seeing the star. This is what they had sought and the sight of it confirmed the belief that had drawn them this far. Then, though, they saw the child and his mother and they were overcome again. In this moment, they lay down before the child and did him homage. This was the sign ... He was the sign.

A child. A manger. An evening of Epiphany. God working in the darkness, through the light of a star, to lead these men, and all of humankind, to the realization that the divine was, and is, among us, even if it is in forms that we never would imagine.

This is the epiphany we are called to each day - to discover the divine among us. To ask and be guided by the question, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?"

That is, how is Christ found in this place?

To discover what it is that we know in our heart of hearts that draws us to our king; to put aside our expectations in order to humble ourselves enough to lie down before our God; and to honestly face what it is that rises within us, be it fear like Herod's or awestruck rejoicing like that of the magi, as we encounter God.

No amount of learning or experience can prepare us for an epiphany of faith. An epiphany can come after we've traveled miles and followed signs or, just as easily, as we make our way through daily life. Either way, we must be open to this moment, embracing and being embraced by God within it; allowing the possibility that the answer to where Christ is in all of this may surprise and startle us.

After all, we are an epiphany people. Constantly asking ourselves how we will choose to return from our encounter with Christ and choosing, as daylight comes and the stars fade, to venture out in hope, faith, and love - a changed people.