Sisters in Christ: The Importance of Community

Here you are now/ fresh from your wars/ back from the edge of time/ and all that you were stripped to the bone/I thought you’d want to know

When you feel the world is crashing all around your feet/ come running headlong into my arms/ breathless/I’ll never judge you/I can only love you/come now running headlong into my arms breathless

Lay down your guns/too weak to run/nothing can harm you here/and your precious heart broken and scarred somehow you made it through/I only ask that you won’t go again

So glad to see you smiling, so good to hear you laugh, I think that you’ll find you even missed yourself, I’m only asking this cause I think that truth be told, you’ll never go again.

— Better Than Ezra, Breathless

I heard this song on my iPod during the flight home from the Edel Gathering (an opportunity to meet with like-minded Catholic mothers), and it struck me how much these words are the words that God whispered to each of us over the course of the weekend, particularly those who came here struggling.

“It is good that you are here.” These words from a woman named Hallie reached out and pierced through insecurity, doubt, anxiety, and in some cases, pain, and let us know that we were seen, we were wanted, and here in this space at the Edel Gathering, we did not have to hide. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, this was a group of women who had to go on the internet to make friends and find others who value what we value and love what we love. Probably 75% of us would describe ourselves as reserved or even introverted.

Yet what I witnessed at the Edel Gathering was a sense of community so strong that I wondered if we’d somehow all known each other for years. Then I remembered: we did. Though this may have been the first time many of us had broken bread at the same tables and shared the dance floor,, many of these women had been sharing their hearts, thoughts, and words with one another for years. We may have only met this weekend, but we’ve known each other all along. I saw the beautiful face of a college friend I had not seen for 7 years, and we talked together as though no time had passed at all. I met a woman who attends my (admittedly huge and brand new) parish and who I met for the first time 500 miles from home. In addition to these women, I was so blessed to spend time with others whose words have inspired me to take a risk and be vulnerable. They have challenged me to live my faith more consistently and to think about things in new ways, to fill in the gaps that exist in my limited life experiences. Dostoyevsky has said that “beauty will save the world,” and this weekend I saw a tiny glimpse of how that just might look.

I walked into the Edel Gathering so overwhelmed by the enormity of my life, overwhelmed with three children under age 4, including a set of twins, and a husband I never get to spend time with. The strain of it all was beginning to tug on the seams of our very happy marriage. As usual, the Enemy prowls around looking for a foothold and found one in a terrible fight Atticus and I had early in the week before I left. In the interest of authenticity and embracing vulnerability, I will tell you that there was a part of me, in the wake of this fight, that considered not coming back from Texas, but rather running away from my life and hiding forever. I didn’t even have the words for it then, but I was drowning in plain sight. I was wondering how I could go on one more day, let alone a week, month, year, lifetime in this vocation, wondering if, as I was told by countless others, it would actually ever get any easier. I was feeling so unworthy of being with these women, who are holy, and brilliant, and beautiful. Because, you see, I am a mess. All of this was swirling around and around me on Friday when I arrived, a storm cloud of misery. By the time I left on Sunday, sharing a taxi with a new friend, I was 100% certain that I was where I was meant to be. That it indeed was good that I was here. That all of us were here.

Marion, the first speaker, spoke words anointed directly by the Holy Spirit. I am convinced of this. Nearly every one of us cried (or came very near tears) or experienced chills during her amazing talk about the need for community, support, and vulnerability—for mothers, yes, but also for all of us Catholic women. We are swimming upstream in a culture that would not care if we drowned, and we need each other. We need to know our sisters in Christ love us and see us for who we are. It is good to celebrate the beauty all around us and to show the world what is good and holy in our lives, to see the “highlight reels” of each other’s lives. But we also need to let the mask fall, especially with our sisters in Christ. Especially when we are together. It has to be ok for us to fall apart, so that these beautiful and holy women can be the hands that God uses to put us back together again. We are each of us carrying enormous and sometimes invisible burdens. We are each of us scarred and broken and healing. The beauty of these women, and maybe even in me, is that when we risk everything to share our broken, bleeding hearts, they do not turn away.

Jen spoke on Saturday night about the vast cathedrals we are building as Catholic women. Not only mothers, but all Catholic women—those in religious life who are pouring themselves out as a libation for a world thirsting for love; those single women who work so tirelessly to make the world a better place; married women bearing the invisible and crushing cross of infertility, subfertility, or fears of even trying to have children because of trauma or plaguing insecurities. God has given each of us gifts to put at the service of life. The broken world in which we live has given us stories of sin, and redemption, and hope. Pope Francis has called the Church to a culture of encounter, where we truly engage with those we meet. A culture of encounter rooted in love will become a culture of life. We sisters build up the culture of life when we share our hearts with one another, accepting the risk of being vulnerable and accepting the vulnerability of others.

Edel flung open the doors on this community, and I sincerely hope they never close again. I write this on the plane ride home, knowing that chaos and beautiful noise will greet me as I walk through the door, tired from two long nights of talking with friends. I know the days will continue to be hard, and probably for a long time. I know there will be days—probably in the next week—when I feel too weak to love any more or to give any further. But now I know that when I feel the world is crashing around my feet, somewhere in this grand cathedral known as the Church, some sister in Christ is feeling it too. We can walk together, and the beauty of no longer hiding our brokenness from one another will start to change the world.

Dear sisters, whether you attended Edel or not, I want to say this: the cathedral doors are open, and we want and need all of you inside.

Justice in the Family, Justice in the World

The first time I heard the phrase “social justice” I was 16 and on a retreat given by the diocese where I grew up. When explained to me in the roughest of sketches on that hot July day, I knew I’d found the place I belonged. Whatever social justice was, it was where I wanted to be. I joined the “volunteerism club” in my high school, and eagerly sought out ways to advocate for social justice at my Catholic university. I knew when graduation was approaching that while I loved academics, I was being called to work for justice in a more direct way.

So I moved to Chicago to serve as a teacher in an under-resourced Catholic school on the south side of the city, working toward certification as a teacher and a degree in education. For quite a lot of reasons, I discerned after nearly a year that classroom teaching was not where God wanted me to serve. However, during my crash course in what it means to live in a low-income neighborhood and get by with little, to be surrounded by violence and grocery shop at a convenience store, I kept my eyes wide open. I saw a lot while riding public transit through one of the most crime-ridden and economically depressed parts of the country.

As providence would have it, the very same university where I was working on my degree in education had just piloted the nation’s first Catholic Social Justice Master’s program. I applied and was accepted. I kept my eyes wide open. I met amazing people who have worked and struggled to bring God’s Kingdom to this earth. I learned from some of the best minds teaching on this subject. I encountered things that, as a person deeply committed and loyal to my Church, broke my heart. As part of an internship I did for the Office for Peace and Justice of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I saw first-hand how fractured and cynical the body of Christ can become towards one another, once the term social justice is applied.  These divisions have regrettably been created between traditional, often very pious, faithful, and generous Catholics and those who seem to focus on social justice at the expense of traditional Catholic values and Church teaching.

Far from being a source of division and brokenness, this concept of social justice can unite us nearly as fiercely as the Eucharist. It literally means, “being in right relationship”—to order society and all of its institutions towards being in right relationship with one another and with Creation. When properly understood and embraced, what could be more unifying than that? During the process of earning my degree, it occurred to me that the primary way God wanted me to serve him and serve justice was to do so through my writing. To serve Him in the “tangle of my mind,” reading, thinking, and writing about such a complex yet simple truth as living in right relationship.

Now that I am married and a mother, this desire to live justly continues to burn within. What does it mean to live justice as a wife, as a mother? As a member of a parish community as well as a city neighborhood? Why is social justice such a loaded term? How can we bring the beauty and wisdom of the Church’s teachings to bear on the justice issues of our day? How do we balance the demands of the Works of Mercy with the “stuff” of our day-to-day lives? I look forward to continuing to explore these questions and others as part of the Millennial community, and I offer a prayer for us all, to seek first God’s justice:

Lord Jesus, carpenter and king, supreme sovereign of all men, look with tender mercy upon the multitudes of our day who bear the indignities of injustice everywhere. Raise up leaders in every land dedicated to Your standards of order, equity, and justice. Grant unto us, Lord Jesus, the grace to be worthy members of Your mystical body, laboring unceasingly to fulfill our vocation in the social apostolate of Your Church. Sharpen our intellects to pierce the pettiness of prejudice; to perceive the beauty of true human brotherhood. Guide our minds to a meaningful understanding of the problems of the poor, of the oppressed, of the unemployed, of all in need of assistance anywhere. Guide our hearts against the subtle lure of earthly things and undue regard for those who possess them. May we hunger and thirst after justice always. Amen.  – Fr. John A. Hardon