Saturday, December 10, 2022

From Give Us This Day: "Not the Glory We Imagine"

For those of you who subscribe to Give Us This Day  from Liturgical Press, today's reflection is my own. If you don't subscribe (you really should!), I'm happy that they have given me permission to share it here. Blessings of the dawning light to you all....

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December 2022

Reflection

Not the Glory We Imagine

Anyone who has watched the sun rise knows the soft glow that develops on the horizon right before the sun emerges. This dawning light ushers in the new day.

In these Advent days of waiting, John the Baptist is the dawning light of Christ. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John cries out. As if to say, “Soon the Son will be here, the light in all its fullness will shine forth.” Inviting us to open our eyes to the glory of God dawning in Jesus, John fulfills the role of an earlier prophet, Elijah, on whom today’s readings focus.

Elijah’s prophetic greatness was well known, as the book of Sirach recounts. What’s more, he never died but was taken up in a chariot of fire. Thus, in Jewish tradition, Elijah will return to make way for the Messiah, the Anointed One who is to come.

Jesus’ disciples would have known and believed this. That is what makes Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel all the more scandalous. In fulfilling Elijah’s prophetic role, John the Baptist foretold Jesus as the Messiah and was killed. Despite the glory of the Transfiguration (complete with Moses and Elijah), which immediately precedes today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling the disciples that the Messianic light they are anticipating may not be the glory they imagined.

This is a good reminder in these Advent days. The glorious savior we anticipate will take the form of a vulnerable, marginalized child. Following his way will lead us into uncomfortable territory where we are called to give our whole selves in scandalously expansive love. By doing so, we prepare the way, witnessing to the dawning light and trusting that God’s light will give us life and our lives will shine Jesus’ light in the world.

Sr. Colleen Gibson

Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder (beingmyvocation.blogspot.com), she is currently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

[CREDIT]   Sr. Colleen Gibson, “Not the Glory We Imagine” from the December 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Immaculate Reconceptions: Engaging Advent and moving beyond ourselves

In my latest column from the Global Sisters Report, I examine what it means to engage Advent and move beyond ourselves as we enter more intentionally into this season. How might God be inviting us to make room for new ideas, new emotions, and new conceptions of classic themes that move beyond "me" to "we"? I pray we each may strive for that movement these Advent days. Blessings!

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This Advent I've begun to notice a particular sense of expectancy all around me. Perhaps the best way to put it is that I have been encountering pregnant pauses.

Watching as the Advent wreath is blessed and lit at Mass one day, I find my attention drifting to the woman in the second row of chairs gently caressing her growing stomach, the soft stretch of maternity-wear elastic along her sides. A dear friend calls to deliver the news that he and his wife are expecting, a pulsating wave of ecstatic love and nervous joy pouring through the phone. A prayer intention of knowing grief hangs in the quiet of a women's group as a member prays for a friend who has suffered a miscarriage.

Babies. Mothers. Pregnancy. All around me. Expectancy. Emotion. Embodiment.

Standing at the entrance of a friend's baby shower, I pause as I hold a tiny slip of paper. The placard in front of me explains that my friend and her wife have not yet chosen a name for their little one, who will arrive very soon. "Suggest a name and tell us the meaning behind it," the prompt suggests. As I fiddle with my pen, I think of all that a name holds. I think of the pregnant pauses, the expectancy, and the virtues I wish for this little one.

I pause to pray for my friends and for the world in which all these pregnant pauses exist, where peace and flourishing coalesce with fear and trembling — a world that God chooses to enter and a world where we are asked to welcome God in.

Without any indication of biological sex, I think of the myriad names I could offer on that tiny slip of paper — big names that take a lifetime to live into and names that carry memories and aspirations. With Advent on my mind, I think of hope, faith, joy and love. What do those things mean to someone waiting to welcome new life into the world? What do they mean to someone whose expectancy is met by the unexpected?

Those are the questions we carry with us as we enter into this Advent season. This time of waiting and reflection prepares us for the promise of Christmas and yet, as I consider the many pregnant pauses I've encountered these days, I wonder if it might also invite us to reconceive of the way in which we prepare to welcome that new life into our lives and our world.

As I wrote on these pages on the cusp of a Christmas past, our God "is a God of brokenness … born under cover of night, in the lowliest of places, fac[ing] insurmountable odds." This is the God we believe in, the One who became human, who dwelt among us, who became poor to be one with us at our most vulnerable. I think we can forget this or, perhaps, choose to look past the fact that God opted for poverty and invites us, in this season and all seasons, to do the same.

This last point is particularly poignant when considering how easily Advent can become a season focused on inward, personal transformation. In the quiet and the waiting, we pray to become something new. This desire is sincere, no doubt. But whom and for what are we transforming?

In this season of wonder and candle-lit darkness, we pray that we might be transformed so that God may come to life in us. We ready ourselves to receive the gifts of the Incarnation and the Christmas graces of Emmanuel. This is a beautiful desire and admirable goal but if our Advent actions stop there, we've missed a critical aspect of the season.

The One who is coming, the Christ we ready our hearts to receive in a new way, is Emmanuel — God with us. Note the plural there. God with us, not just me. This One is not a personal care package or a boost to my spirit alone. The Christ is not incarnated in isolation, confined to the insular creche I prepare in my heart. No, Christ comes into the world and our lives on a much grander scale. This is the One who comes for all people, in all places, especially those places that are broken or abandoned. Our lives and our personal relationship with Jesus may very well be the avenue through which Christ becomes apparent, but the gift that in that advent of Christ offered is for everyone.

Broadening our conception of Christ's coming at Christmas also begs us to reconsider what else about this Advent season we might be holding captive in the confines of our heart. Recalling how Mary pondered all things about Jesus in her heart and Joseph reconsidered the plans he had made in light of God's dream, we're invited with each passing week of Advent to ponder how Christ's coming calls us to reconceive the themes we meditate on in this season: hope, faith, joy and love.

The question becomes not only what do these things mean to me, but what do these concepts mean to us?

Reconciling God's preferential love for the poor with our own call to love in the world and encounter God in our neighbor begs us then to reconceive the very themes we meditate upon. In this context, the hope we pray for, which so often is a plea to God for a personal pick-me-up, becomes a prayer that we might find hope in what is hidden and offer hope despite what is unknown. With this hope, our meditation on faith becomes a seeking of understanding about why God would dwell among us and what our belief in such incarnation should do in the world. We make room for a faith that is not independent but interdependent with God and with others.

Finding faith and hope straddling the inner and outer parts of ourselves, we are surely swept up in reflecting on joy as the full-bodied rejoicing that God is with us no matter what. More than mere happiness or expectation, this Advent joy reflects the abundance of God, the fruit of pregnant pauses that put flesh on the gift of God’s gratuitous love and rejoice in finding joy and wonder in the existence of others. It is a joy that is not just about our inner peace but peace on earth and goodwill toward all.

This naturally leads us to love. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, Emmanuel, to be one with us, to dwell in our love and to unite us in loving relationships of mutuality and grace. Increasing our awareness through faith, hope and joy, we prepare room for love to finally rest in the humble dwelling place of our being.

This final movement in the Advent cycle allows us to receive love as God offers it in prayer and in relationship and to offer it, in turn, freely to others and God by opening our hearts in vulnerability and surrender. It is the work of expectancy, emotion and embodiment immaculately conceived in us by God and reconceived over and over in our lifetime. As we undertake this work in a renewed way this Advent, may our prayer bring us beyond ourselves to reconceive of the gifts God offers us … finish reading the article here

 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

A New Podcast: Beyond the Habit!



Exciting news! After months of planning, I'm happy to announce the premier of Beyond the Habit, a podcast about moving beyond everyday assumptions of what it means to be Catholic and live the gospel, hosted by myself and Sister Erin McDonald, CSJ!

Our first episode, featuring Sister Helen Prejean, is available now at http://beyondthehabitpod.com/ . If you scroll down the page you'll see a play button that will allow you to listen to this week's episode, entitled "Sneaky Jesus" (next Tuesday the second part of our conversation will be released). You can also see future episodes (the first season has 6) and more information about the podcast on the website as well.

I'd also like to ask a favor: If you could share the podcast with anyone you think might enjoy the conversation, we'd be most grateful! As a friend wrote to me recently, this is a "ministry of the mic"... and, as you know, a mic only works if people hear the message (our charism) it's broadcasting!  SO please share the link to the website far and wide and, if you're on social media, follow, like, and share our content on Facebook and Instagram.

So grateful to our wonderful production team, especially Elizabeth Powers and Sister Sarah Simmons, CSJ for their creativity, perseverance, and joy, and to the Congregation of St. Joseph and Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia

Happy Listening & Many Thanks, 
Colleen


Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Poor Cry Out: Blessed Be The Lord


 This Sunday we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in whose prayers we find lessons for each of us to reflect more deeply on. Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves more than these two figures... to look differently... to expand our vision. As part of my current studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I offered a reflection on this Sunday's Scriptures. Click above to watch me preach or read the reflection I offer below.

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After the first full week of classes this semester, I found myself at mass early one Sunday morning, happy be in a familiar place of prayer and quiet. My head was swimming with thoughts about my classes- Should I add this class or drop that class? Was I smart enough to hold my own? Would I be able to do all the work that would be asked of me? How was God leading my studies and where was this all headed?

As I sorted through my own internal dialogue, the familiar refrain of today’s responsorial psalm broke through. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blessed be the Lord.” 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this refrain from Psalm 34 in my life, but in that moment, as it interrupted my internal dialogue of doubt and worry, I heard it in a different way.  I had always presumed that the psalmist was saying that God’s blessedness is revealed in the hearing of the cries of the poor. And while this is true, I also realized that in so many moments of my life, I didn’t count myself among the poor. 

Like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, I righteously considered myself separate from the rest of humanity. I do what is right, I study theology, I show up on Sunday morning.  Of course, God would hear my prayers.

Yet sitting there that morning, feeling poor in spirit and facing the limits of my capabilities, I could hear the tax collector’s voice deep within. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Part of being human is recognizing our limitations. Part of being Christian is believing that by becoming human, God in Jesus Christ reconciles the world and each of us to God’s self. God knows and loves us in our very humanity.

As the first reading from Sirach today recounts: God doesn’t play favorites, when we cry out God hears us and our prayers remain with God until there is reconciliation. 

In faith, we trust in God’s steadfast presence, knowing the many ways throughout our lives that God has provided for us in our poverty and recognizing that God stands particularly with those on the margins- the excluded and overlooked, the oppressed and the materially impoverished.

With humility then, we are called to work for justice and right relationship, here and now. This work is not our own. It makes us no better than anyone else. In fact, if done correctly, it will humble us, making us face our self-deceptions and reminding us of the grace of our humanity. 

And if we can do this with humble hearts and utter dependence on God, we might just hear ourselves- the poor ones- cry out. “Blessed be the Lord!”


Friday, September 30, 2022

We are Living Documents: Synod Reports & a Spirit-led Church

My latest contribution to the Global Sisters Report focuses on the national synthesis of synod reports released in the United States on September 19th, my own experience of synodality over the past year, and what I think it has to teach us about the church as a Spirit-led institution. May the Spirit continue to guide each one of us, calling us to transformation and forming our hearts and institutions in the way of listening and discovery for all God calls us to!

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"I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." Or so I say every week. It's a church I have belonged to my whole life, a church I've given my life to, and a church still becoming a truer version of what it says it is.

Two weeks ago, on Sept. 19, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its national synthesis of the synodal process in the United States. Bringing the diocesan phase of the synodal process to a close, this document provides an overview of the over 22,000 reports gathered by U.S. dioceses from individual parishes and other groups. As one of the estimated 700,000 people who participated in the synod in the United States, I opened the national synthesis with an air of both caution and hope.

To be honest, hope and caution were the feelings that accompanied me when I took part in a synodal listening session this past spring. Shuffling into a classroom with about 50 other people, a cautious hopefulness (or was it a hopeful cautiousness?) filled me. My hope was in a process that brought people together to listen and discern, reliant on relationships and open to the Holy Spirit. My reticence stemmed from a fear that either the process wouldn't live up to that expectation or it would be so expansive that the variety of voices speaking in the process would be lost.

Greeted by an invitation to silent reflection followed by intentional listening and sharing, the session offered a safe space for participants to offer their hopes and desires as well as disappointments and disaffections. Naming what "we" do well as a church and what needs more attention, there was a respect in the room as we listened to the stories shared and gathered a vision of church that it seemed we all could recognize in one way or another.

As I looked around, I saw a room full of "living human documents," to borrow a term from Anton Boisen. Filling the classroom like a living library, we formed a full display of the lessons, lesions, and longings of faithfully lived lives of faith. Each one bearing their own story and sharing what they were able, naming from their experience the church for what it is and imagining what it could be in communion.

By the end of that session, I found myself hope-filled as I signed up to be part of a team of participants who would synthesize the reports from a series of synodal meetings. Later, combing through the written results of multiple sessions, I bristled at opinions I didn't necessarily agree with, priorities that didn't align with my own, and issues that I thought would never make it to the national synthesis. Looking at the report of mixed perspectives and priorities our team submitted, I wondered what would surface on the other side of the synod. Even as caution returned, I found myself confronted by the fact that there on the page was the voice of a church, nearly 2,000 years old, still finding its way.

Reading through the national synthesis, I've found the vision I feared might be lost in synthesis there on the page as well as those I'd wished would have been. One, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Voices speaking about the ordination of women as “as a matter of justice” and attention to racism and the need to cultivate means of welcoming LGBTQ+ persons as well as the disabled and disenfranchised were placed next to lamentations about “limited access to the 1962 Missal,” disengagement in parish communities accelerated by COVID-19, and the spread of cultural divisions reflective of larger societal polarization within the faithful, and especially within the hierarchy. One, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I reminded myself.

As James Joyce famously quipped in Finnegans Wake, "Catholic means 'Here comes everybody.' " That's part of the universalism that is being catholic. And while the oneness we proclaim may be a hard-forged unity, the national synthesis offers hope that even if it is not a full reality, unity is desired by people on all sides of the ecclesial aisle.

Studying reports on diocesan synodal reports and commentaries on the wealth of input released during the synodal process, I have been edified by the honesty and humility with which we, the church, have undertaken this process.

Has it been perfect? No. Did it take place everywhere? Also, no. Were enough voices heard? With an estimated 700,000 participants out of 66.8 million U.S. Catholics, a figure of about 1%, the answer once again is "no."

Yet still something is being done, voices are being raised, relationships built, consciences challenged.

Small though it is, the 1% is confronting the echo chamber that can be the church circles we choose to run in. Calling our attention to how we hear messages that challenge us in ways we feel comfortable, what voices we seek out to support our side, and where we search out conversation partners and companions on the journey. And the invitation from that small sample is offered to the whole church.

As Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, writes in the national aynthesis' introduction, "The publication of this document is not a concluding moment … it is a reflective, forward-moving moment. It is an invitation to listen, to discuss together and to discern together as the Church, about how best to understand and act upon those matters that sit deeply in the hearts and minds of Catholics in the U.S."

This is a moment. A moment which marks what has been and the conversations that have been had and also a moment that looks forward. The synthesis report does not leave behind what has occurred in parishes and meeting halls, it does not forego the work of future Zoom calls and homegrown gatherings. It acknowledges that these gatherings were fruitful. That in those spaces concerns and wounds came to light, desires and joys were shared with faith, hope and love.

For individuals, communities and the church writ large, this synodal moment is not over and the U.S. synthesis report makes that clear. To stop now would be to curtail the Spirit, to cut the conversation off mid-sentence.

We must keep on listening, speaking and acting, in the Spirit and with one another. As the synthesis advises, “Attentive listening in the Church provides the catalyst for engaging discernment.” With engaged discernment, we can read each other as living documents with openness, respect and curiosity, learning in the process and growing as the body of Christ.

As Flores again writes, “The Synthesis is, among other things, an expression of what we as a Church have heard each other say when asked about our deepest preoccupations and hopes for the Church of which, by the grace of God, we are all a vital part.”

As we continue this synodal journey in faith, hopeful if but cautious, we must remember that each of us is vital to this church. Together as living documents… read the conclusion of the article here


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

"Hope comes in the mourning"

In reflecting on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II this past week, I've found myself wondering if a true honoring of the Queen's legacy of faith would be to confront the colonial ties of the monarchy and to reform the role as a means of unification, reconciliation, and reparation in a post-colonial context. That reflection led me to write a piece for La Croix International on Monday, September 19, the day of the Queen's burial. To read the piece, entitled "Hope comes in the mourning," visit: https://international.la-croix.com/news/world/hope-comes-in-the-mourning/16620 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

In Praise of a Snail's Pace

 Earlier this summer I found myself down the Shore grappling with the state of our world and the question of how long change takes... what pace should we be moving at? Why can't it happen already? What role do we all have to play? See my reflections on these questions in my latest column for the Global Sisters Report below...

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As I made my way to the beach on an early June morning, the glint of a shell caught my eye. I smiled at the snail that bore it on its back, stuck to the vertical face of the stairs leading up to the boardwalk. "It looks like we're headed to the same place," I thought as I smiled to myself and scurried up the steps to the boardwalk and the beach beyond.

The morning sky had only begun to lighten, bearing the promising marks of the sunrise yet to come. In the stillness of dawn, the world seemed to pause before daybreak. No children dotted the sand. No planes cut across the sky, and no boats disturbed the sea.

Watching the sun come up over the Atlantic, I marveled at the beauty of a new day dawning as I walked the shoreline, sinking deeper into the serenity of the salty surf with each step. As the sun rose higher and burned brighter, I turned to make my way back to where I was staying. The day had begun and, with my heart at peace, my head had begun its foray into the day ahead.

Dusting off my feet as I crossed from the beach to the boardwalk, I saw the glint of a shell at the top of the boardwalk stairs. I doubt that the snail had come to see the sunrise, but still I rejoiced in its ascent. Stopping at the top step, I set aside my plans to head home.

With a soft, fluid motion, the snail made its way over gaps in the boardwalk and shards of stone and glass scattered in its path. This is a snail's pace: an almost imperceivable motion that gets it where it's going with minimal friction and fullness of presence as it searches its way to wherever it's headed.

Watching my little invertebrate friend, my mind began to get frustrated. Come on! Let's get going! The day has dawned, and you are watching a bug!

The beauty of my morning walk had burned off, and yet still I sat there, watching the snail slowly sail along. Despite my mind's impatience, my attention remained intently focused on the action unfolding around and within me. The question that surfaced within me was that of the psalmist in Psalm 13: How long, O Lord? How long?

With everything happening in the world, this lament felt fitting. How long can this war, this drought, this virus, this suffering, this dissension go on?

If we continue at this pace — in religious life, in public discourse, in our church, and in our world — will we ever make the turn? That is, will we find our direction? Will we pivot to the point where the dawning light is one we can embrace and not a series of should-haves and could-haves?

As Nan Merrill translates the middle of Psalm 13:


How long will fear rule my life?

Notice my heart and answer me, O my Beloved;

enlighten me, lest I walk as one dead to life;

Lest my ego fears say, "We have won the day;"

Lest they rejoice in their strength.


This, I fear, could and perhaps has become a part of our movement. That we might say, "This pace" — be it too slow or too fast — "is fine." We must remember, after all, that a snail's pace is fine ... for a snail.

We, however, are not snails. We belong to living, breathing communities; we are people seeking the light of dawn and called to press on toward that light. Justice presses us to move faster. It calls us to open our doors wider, to hear voices excluded, and to see who and what is missing. The Spirit assures us that if we follow, grace will never outpace us. Our call is to do this as best we know how and, at the same time, to improve our knowing along the way. This is a call to the church, our congregations, our persons, and our society.

Like the snail, we can't wait. The turn toward the future is not a theory; it's as real as the steps that stand before us. The snail shows us that we must press on, not just dealing with this moment or maybe the next, but the whole staircase ahead of us as best we can know and see it. With agility and persistence, we must face our fears, interrogate our assumptions, hear laments, and embrace the pace God is calling us to.

We may cry out, "How long?!", but what if God is asking us to pick up the pace and rise to the occasion? To see God's face in the world around us and to discover that God is with us each step of the way? To recognize and embrace the reality that, in fact, we have our home in Jesus?

This is the home that we carry with us in the world, the reality religious life witnesses to, the shell that sparkles in the sun. This home is the love of God. It is the blessing that we (and the psalmist) rejoice in — a steadfast love in which our hearts rejoice, a total union with God, a safe shelter we are called to share with all the world.

Carrying that love with us, we await those whose heads are buzzing with all our present day holds. We make space so that they might find a home in God too, and perhaps slow themselves long enough to sit beside us at the dawn of a new day and embrace the beauty and peace that a pace not unlike that of a snail has to offer us.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Poem: Midnight Fonts

This past weekend I was in San Antonio, Texas with more than 70 other women religious under the age of 50 for the Giving Voice National Gathering. Our time together was blessed as we shared life and space together. The fruit of my own reflection is the poem below... 


This is the land of the water people
The ones who in the middle of the night
come
with jugs and bottles
souls shaped like cisterns
waiting to be filled.
They kneel low at the spigots
filling their vessels to the brim
These are the ones hauling holy water
the sacrament of the silent hoisting on shoulders
They bear the weight atop their heads 
and believe that this water will work wonders 
in the hearts of the world. 





   



 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

More than hope: Spiritual gifts for troubling times

My latest column for the Global Sisters Report is a reflection on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how a reconsideration of them might offer us something more than hope in these troubling times. May the Spirit guide each of us along the way- Come, Holy Spirit, Come!


"Look!" I unthinkingly prompted my 8-year-old nephew as we drove past the flagpole in front of a local daycare last week. We had just finished his homework, a worksheet about Memorial Day, before we set out for the local playground. "What do we call that?"

I could see his mind searching for the word we'd learned from the worksheet as I looked at him in the rearview mirror. After a few moments, the word surfaced in his mind. "Half-mast?" He replied with the uncertainty of a newly learned word. “That’s right.” I assured him. "That flag is at half-mast."

For a split second, I thought to myself: It's only Thursday. Why are they marking Memorial Day already?" Then I remembered: Uvalde. The school shooting.

Of course, it could have been the Tops Market in Buffalo, too, or the church shooting in Orange County, California. As I wrote on these very pages six years ago: "The flags are at half-staff again."

Then, I argued that the virtue of hope might sustain us for the long haul. "Hope sustains us and allows us to see more clearly, no matter how blurry the signs of the times might seem. … If we can keep that hope before our eyes, we will see clearly. Our hearts will still ache, and rightfully so, at the sight of flags at half-staff. But we will remember that we have a role to play in healing the heart of humanity, a part to play in the life of faith, hope and love alive in this world."

I still believe this — that hope prevails — but I have to wonder if the endless list of shootings proves me wrong. I have to grapple with the fact that news of the war in Ukraine has become commonplace and the other violence in our world that it overshadows in our prayers remains all but forgotten. I have to reflect on what I'm doing, what I've done, what I haven't, and for who and whom I'm holding out hope.

On the cusp of Pentecost, the resounding call of the Spirit seems to be not to abandon hope but to ask what exactly is meant to be built upon it. Faith, hope, and love dwell in our being by virtue of our baptism. These are the virtues that ground our being and sustain our souls. They are gifts from God that call forth more than just sweet visions of the hereafter or nostalgia for a simpler time. Stopping to reflect on these virtues demands something more of us as believers. It curiously compels us to reconsider the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and in the process to assess what these gifts might mean for us in times such as these.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord —are bestowed on us in the sacrament of confirmation. And just as confirmation is a response of faith in a moment for a lifetime, so are the gifts given in that moment. They are not just relegated to a confirmation class or catechesis; these gifts are meant to be practiced, to grow and mature in us as we give life to the faith we profess. They build on the virtues of faith, hope and love, and they call us to follow the inspiration of the Spirit with openness, integrity and zeal. With creativity, the Spirit invites us to reimagine them in each new moment to meet the needs of the world and serve the Reign of God.

What then, might these gifts look like for us in this moment?

At its core, wisdom is the gift that fills our hearts and minds with a sense of what is good and right. To seek what is true and just requires that we embrace the wisdom that comes from God. Wisdom can challenge us to discern what we think we know and to discover what we don't. With the help of the Spirit, we seek wisdom so that we can balance what is best for us with the common good, recognizing that at times our own comfort and entitlement must decrease so that wisdom may prevail, that our prejudices and privilege stand in the way wisdom's call to act justly.

If wisdom distinguishes right from wrong, understanding is the invitation to see that distinction more clearly. Understanding gets to the heart of the matter at hand, opening us to insight and inviting us to discern where God is speaking in a given situation. Is God in the cries of pain and grief? How does God stand with those who are persecuted? Where is God in the lives of those who perpetrate violence? We may never fully understand the answers to these questions, but the Spirit guides us to clearly comprehend God's presence and discern God's will in the situations we face.

Understanding, however, is not something we come to only on our own. We need to seek the counsel of the Spirit as it dwells in community. The gift of counsel is being able to converse with others, to listen to advice and insight as well as offering your own. Together we better understand situations because in communion with one another we challenge one another's preconceived notions, we warn one another and we call forth the best. This isn't always easy. Complacency and "know-it-all-ism" can stifle counsel. If understanding is to see clearly and wisdom is to discern actively, then counsel is to listen attentively with our heads and our hearts.

Engaging these three gifts leads us to the fourth: fortitude. This is the strength and stamina to continue pursuing the engagement wisdom, understanding and counsel call forth. When each new day brings another tragedy, fortitude is particularly important. We must remain morally strong. We can't give up on justice. Losing heart is not an option. The Spirit remains with us in our mourning and lamentation. It calls us to be strong in admitting our faults and resolute in pursuing what is right.

Fortitude requires admitting our power, naming what it is that we can tangibly do to make a difference and continuously calling those with political power to make change on a larger scale. I may not be able to stop the sale of semiautomatic firearms, but I can press others to do so. In this way, the gift of fortitude is an enduring spirit, resilient in embracing the demands of justice and courageous in the humility with which it interprets what commitment to God’s command to love boldly looks like in lived reality.

Part of this humility is the pursuit of knowledge, which is a gift unto itself. Knowledge as a gift of the Spirit invites us to expand our horizons, to learn not just for the sake of knowing but for constructive means. What we learn we must put to use; it is our moral obligation to be informed, to counteract misinformation and to challenge our assumptions by bringing ignorance to light.

Finally, there is piety and fear of God, a double dose of devotion that calls us to deepen our relationship with God. The personal prayer that is piety and the healthy distinction that we, in fact, are not God that is found in the fear of God, directs us to see that by using the gifts of the Spirit we are called to imitate Jesus. These gifts ground our faith, calling us to personal holiness and respect for all that God has created. A respectful relationship with God inspires awe and reverence in our relationship with God and with all of God’s creation. Such respect begs us to protect the people and places God loves, to fall deeper in love with God by embracing the lowly, the unknown, and the unexpected people and situations of our lives as gifts.

In the end, it is our embrace of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that cultivates a hunger for justice and love of God that go hand in hand. These gifts are meant to be put into action, used in union, and refined and reimagined each new day. The hope, faith, and love they build upon are the foundation of our life and need to call us to a heightened sense of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of God. In world that seems to be on fire, these gifts fan our spirits into flame. Together with the Holy Spirit, we are called to remember what we'd rather forget, face what we'd rather ignore and change what is dimming the light of life in our hearts, our lives and our world.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Everyday Annunciations

As we mark the Solemnity of the Annunciation, my latest column for the Global Sisters Report reminds us that God is always reaching out, trying to get our attention. These everyday annunciations can transform our hearts time and again if we take the time to listen. I hope this day that you pay attention to where the light is trying to break in or at least remember the annunciations of your life that remind you that God has spoken and will continue to speak to you. Enjoy!

 

For years, I would buy a ticket to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for one thing and one thing only: "The Annunciation."

Ticket in hand, I would wind my way down the art-lined hallways of the museum to a gallery deep in the bowels of the American art wing. At times, it felt like I was making my way to the center of the earth, past presidential china and countless still life paintings, quilts and western landscapes, until I turned the corner into a gallery with raised ceilings and a few flat wooden benches.

And there it was: Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation."

Sitting on the bench directly in front of the massive painting (over 6 feet tall and 7 feet wide), I would simply gaze on the glimmering canvas. On it, an adolescent girl in the humble dress of a peasant sits reservedly among the crumpled sheets of her bed. Clasping her hands, she looks at the beam of light before her. Her eyes reflect its glow, which illuminates the whole room with a gentle warmth. She has no halo, no shoes and, seemingly, no fear. This young Mary sits and looks intently. Her eyes are fixed on the light that we come to realize is Gabriel. The moment is sacred and still, speaking volumes.

From my seat on the bench, I would scan every inch of the painting. What, God, are you trying to say? What must she have felt, said, heard? Instinctively my hands would come together like Mary's, my fingers intertwining with hers in prayer. Were you scared or startled? Had you known all along there was something more meant for you? Was Gabriel's voice familiar like one you had heard a thousand times before? The light and its glow, a gentle reminder of the God who filled every day of your young life?

Shifting my focus from the light to Mary and back again, the minutes would fade into hours as my prayers filled the sanctuary of the gallery. Before I became a sister, this sacred space could hold the questions of "what if," and after I had entered into the process, there was a clandestine comfort in being hidden away in the cloister of culture the art museum provided. The what ifs continued and, in time, transformed. "What if this is what I'm being called to?" I would think as I looked at the shimmering canvas. The "this" was not just religious life but encounter with God. What if that call to encounter could be found in this moment? What if the annunciation was not a past occurrence or a beautiful work of art but a daily experience of living?

For, as comforting as that gallery was, I knew that the true annunciations of life took place out on the street level. There amidst the pressing demands of work and the noise of every conceivable need in the world, God was speaking to my heart. I just needed to stop long enough to let myself listen.  

So often, that is the case. We rush from place to place, moment to moment, person to person, without pausing to recognize the light right in front of us. The temptation is to assign meaning to our doing rather than our being. I need to help one more person, encounter one more thing, accomplish one more task before the day is complete … I don't need to stop and listen. I already know what God is saying.

Or, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, we think : If I don't stop, I won't have to listen to what God might be trying to say. If I flood my day with news and noise, I can be concerned about that rather than truly bringing those things and my heart to prayer. Then when I pray, I will clasp my hands and eyes as well as my ears and heart, keeping the light at bay and holding on to control.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), that's not how annunciations work. God never shuts up and any crack can let the light in. Thinking of Mary poised on her messy bed I think of the image Beth Knobbe offers in her book Finding My Voice as she talks about not trying to hide anything from God. "God is like the girlfriend who stops by unexpectedly when my apartment is a mess," she writes. "Whether I am ready for company or not, she really doesn't mind." We don’t need to make a perfect setting, Knobbe insists. God will come in anyway. "God is the one who comes over and sits on the bed, while I rush around picking up clothes … she is more concerned about the conversation at hand than the dirty dishes in the sink."

This is the God who offers us everyday annunciations. Even if we are unresponsive or preoccupied, God continues the conversation at hand, be it through the people we encounter, the words we hear ourselves say, the nagging thoughts or feelings we return to, or the sense of unease that invites us to stop and sit for a little while.

From time to time as I sat before "The Annunciation," a tour group would make its way into the gallery. "Here we have one of the greatest American paintings ever," the tour guide would declare. Drawing my attention from the painting, the tour guide would motion toward a painting directly behind me: "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins.

Soon the tour group would surround me on my bench, their backs turned on the magical realism of "The Annunciation" to take in the gruesome testament to medical history and artistic realism the tour guide pointed out. Sitting with my hands folded, I wanted to shout: "Do you see what you're missing?!" — but I couldn't. Annunciations beg our attention on their own. Like shafts of light breaking into the gruesome reality of life, they invite us to something more. They invite us to recognize that, indeed, we are on holy ground, called and blessed, met by God in this very moment, messy as it may be... Finishing reading the column now

 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Dr. King's call and ours.

This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States. As I searched for inspiration, a short statement by Dr. King caught my eye and stirred my heart. Here's my reflection on Dr. King's call, as well as our own, from the Global Sisters Report.

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Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am bombarded by quotes from the late civil rights icon. On that day, I can't scroll farther than a few posts on social media without encountering the warm sepia tones of photographs showing Dr. King in the middle of an impassioned speech, looking out over a sea of people on the Washington Mall, or linked arm-in-arm with public, civil and religious figures marching in protest for justice.

Every year I am amazed by the pieces of speeches and writings that organizations and individuals share to commemorate Dr. King's life and legacy. There are those that are to be expected — sanitized snippets of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, variations of love lifted up over the burdensome weight of hate, and the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. These are quotes that make me feel good, that warm the heart and stir the soul in comforting challenge.

Then there are the deeper cuts, the more unexpected or unfamiliar offerings. There was the labor union that pointed that Dr. King, who was assassinated in Memphis, went to the city specifically to help sanitation workers on strike. There were quotes from King's 1967 "The Other America" speech pointing out the racial disparities in the United States, the racism at the root of poverty and economic injustice, and the struggle faced by people of color then and now.

This is the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that is perhaps easier to forget or harder to sum up in simple phrases. These quotes and facts confront popular, rose-colored remembrances of Dr. King and give living color to the nonviolent, Gospel-based pleas (and actions) for justice for which he lived and, ultimately, died.

Reflecting this past week on that disturbing reality, I came across a quote from Dr. King that I had never before encountered. "My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular," the brief statement written in 1959 for an American Baptist Convention pamphlet begins. What follows is witness to and reminder of how one's call is cultivated and what the challenge of ministry truly entails.

Befitting the brevity of a leaflet, King's "My Call to the Ministry" is all of 11 sentences and yet in that space, King speaks volumes. His call, like many of ours, was not miraculous. He did not encounter "some blinding light" or have "some miraculous vision." It wasn't sudden, spectacular, or even dramatic. It was, as he writes, "a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me." This urge, at its core, was "a desire to serve God and humanity." Beyond any mystical experience or prophetic consecration, Dr. King — like any and all believers — experienced the baptismal call to service.

As remarkably unremarkable as it would seem, this was a call that, in King's response, would echo throughout the generations to come.

This call to serve God and others was an urge that wouldn't leave him. It remained as an undying demand on his being, an urge that offered an invitation both of challenge and pilgrimage. That invitation is what lies at the heart of each of our calls to discipleship. We are called to the gradual engagement and witness to God's grace … to the pilgrimage of life. Walking the Way, we discover that some steps are more challenging than others; some realizations and truths demand deeper engagement than we might be comfortable with. These challenges may be to our own views of the world, our own egos, or to the culture that surrounds us.

For King, "the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry" was what prompted the full investment of his being. Committed to faith, he couldn't help but call forth justice. Thus, what organically emerged in the urges of his soul resulted in the prophetic responsibility to cry for God's transformative justice in this land of the free and the home of the brave.

With such courage of conviction, Martin Luther King Jr. followed the urging of the Spirit into ministry and the pages of history. His clarion call for justice and equity is still ringing out if we unclog the ears of our hearts to hear it. It is in the impassioned speeches made for voting rights in and outside of the halls of government. It is in the questions we raise about just wages, safe working conditions, and adequate and equitable housing for all. It is in the commitment we make to create in our church synodal space so that all people's voices are heard and all people are treated as the beloved children of God that they are.

Our call then today is to be attentive to the action the Gospel calls forth in our world and ourselves. We have been called, not by some miracle or accident, but by the grace of God. That call requires action not just remembrance. Just as Dr. King answered the call in his own way and time, now is our moment to respond in-kind, to remember the fervor of our call and to embody the Gospel message in our very lives.

Thus, God's urge for justice comes alive in us and among us and our action gives life to our remembrance. Revealing that the call we answer is a continual act, not just a singular day of the year. For, in the words of Dr. King... Read the rest of the reflection here