“The final word is love.”

The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached Saturday, January 30, 2016 at a gathering of Catholic Church workers.  The readings for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time were Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19, Psalm 71, I Corinthians 12:31 – 13:13, and Luke 4:21-30.

As we have been reflecting on vocation today, how fitting our beautiful first reading where, through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of how we have been known, dedicated, anointed – even before our birth. Yet implicit in the reading is a recognition of the struggle that lies ahead for those of us who say “yes” to divine call. The antiquated directive to “gird your loins” – which meant to tuck in your tunic so it was out of the way for strenuous activity, especially going into battle – seems to acknowledge that while we have been dedicated and called, that is no promise that this is going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be tough. Jeremiah says God promises to make us a “fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass.” These are images of strength and solidness, an assurance that amid the challenges and conflicts of mission and ministry, God is unfailingly present to strengthen us.

Jeremiah

We see this provision of God illustrated in the Gospel reading where Jesus is caught up in angry, violent conflict after his proclamation of mission. Perhaps we can take heart in the fact that – regardless of challenges we’ve faced in ministry– no angry mob has tried to throw us over a cliff!

Imagine for a moment, Ignatian contemplation style you are in the scene. The people are “filled with fury” and they “rise up.” Imagine their voices, the words they are saying, the way an electric energy of anger moves through the group and a mob mentality forms. They are ready to throw him over a cliff. What is it that Jesus hears and feels as he is caught up in the mass of people leading him to the top of the hill?

What happens next is truly surprising. Luke tells us Jesus “passes through the midst of them and goes away.” How is this possible? It makes me think of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility – somehow, this man who is the target of so much rage is able to simply walk away and go about his business. Apparently, no one says, “hey, he’s getting away! Stop him!” The way Luke describes it, you can almost imagine Jesus quietly slipping out of the din and commotion, rejoining his community, and continuing his ministry – shaken, certainly, but unharmed from the encounter.

Is there an encouragement and lesson here for us as church workers? Is there is a way in which we can be surrounded by, and even the center of conflict and division, and yet some part of us remains untouched and untouchable? Some core, some center – in Jeremiah’s words is a “fortified city” – that through God’s grace is immune to whatever chaos surrounds us? In Merton’s words, a “hidden wholeness,” some inner place that remains strong and untroubled?

Even when we are discouraged by institutions and people who are supposed to mediate the riches of our spiritual tradition and inevitably fall short, we hold to this deep truth of God with us, active in the world for love and life. Like Jesus, can we “pass through the midst of them” and continue on our way with peace and inner certainty – trusting that we are known, anointed, and dedicated by God for service to God’s people?

Against this backdrop of Jeremiah’s moving words of being known, anointed, dedicated by God, and Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ clash with the congregation in his “home parish,” we can hear Paul’s well-known words about love with new ears. As all ministers know, this reading is a favorite for weddings, often associated with married, romantic love. Yet Paul was writing to an early community of Jesus-followers in regards to their relationships in the ekklesia – the Church – with one another in Christian discipleship. In his own way, Paul is challenging the Corinthians to gird their loins and acknowledging that authentic Christian living in community is hard. There will be conflict. In writing that love “doesn’t brood over injury,” there is an implicit understanding that there will be injury. Love does not rejoice in wrong-doing…but wrong-doing is going to happen. Love bears all things, he writes – and there is stuff we are going to have to bear. This truth resonates with each of us in our unique ministerial contexts. Love never fails, and at the same time, this is going to be hard. Dorothy Day echoed this idea, quoting Dostoevsky, that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.”

dorothyday1[1]

“The final word is love.”  – Dorothy Day

 

I dare to believe that there is a core of strength, a core of love, which is a gift from our gracious and merciful God present in each of us…present in each member of the Body of Christ. We are bearing witness to it in each other as we hear and reverence each other’s stories of ministry and the living out of our “yes” to God’s call. The more that, with God’s grace and the support of each other, we can live from this core of strength, the more able we are to pass through the midst of the tumult – the conflicts caused by assignments of new pastors or bishops, the anxiety of parishes being clustered or closed, the dilemmas created by questions of conscience and obedience, the stresses of financial uncertainties, the scandals of power misused and abused. While we haven’t been nearly tossed over a cliff like Jesus, we have been personally and painfully touched by these realities.

Each of these readings recognizes in some ways the challenges of the life of faith and invites us to lean on God and one another – faithfully proclaiming with Paul that “love never fails.” We respond to these readings by connecting with that inner core of strength. We renew our commitment as ministers anointed and dedicated by God, girding our loins and trusting we are given the strength to live out the call, as broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful church in a broken and beautiful world.

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

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My journey with Islam as a Catholic woman

It’s not every day that you hear a proclamation of a “theological state of emergency.” Yet that is precisely the term employed by theologian Mary Hunt in her December 14 Religion Dispatches article calling for “theological first responders,” that is, “scholars and activists…to step forward in concrete, educational ways” in light of recent political rhetoric about Muslims. The words that follow are my modest attempt answer Hunt’s call for “strong and constructive countermeasures” and in union with the Women in Theology statement on anti-Muslim sentiment, out of my own experience as a Catholic woman enriched and blessed by dialogue with Muslims.

For several years, I was part of a Muslim-Christian women’s group in Central Virginia. We are Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, and Episcopalians as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims, from the United States, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Bosnia, Nigeria, Germany and Luxembourg.

We met monthly for two hours, initially with a focus on building friendships. Though we would sometimes invite a guest speaker, generally a Muslim member and Christian member would speak on a topic from her own perspective. Some topics we explored were Mary/Maryam, creation, concern for the poor, the binding of Isaac/akedah, fasting, patriarchy, prayer and pilgrimage/hajj. We didn’t get into potentially divisive topics until we had spent many hours building relationships over cups of tea and plates of cookies.

In addition, we celebrated and broke bread together. We shared the iftar meal during Ramadan – feasting on fattoush and lentil soup. We attended an evening of Las Posadas with the Spanish-speaking Catholic community – feasting on tamales and arroz con gandules.

Since both faith traditions emphasize concern for the poor and vulnerable, we did service together. We spent Saturday afternoons creating a quilt that was presented to the pediatrics department of hospital in Turkey by a member during an interfaith delegation. We served a meal together at a homeless shelter and attended congregation-based community organizing meetings. After we had been meeting for several years, we hosted a “know your neighbor, love your neighbor” evening with the goal of sharing some of the fruits of our community-building.

MC quilt with members

Group members presenting the quilt

correct MC quilt label

English and Arabic dedication of our quilt (photo credit: Judy Sayed)

I’ll let the testimonies of two group members speak for themselves.

“Being a part of such an amazing group of women has really enriched my life. We all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences and views but we all share an open-mindedness and a passion for listening and learning that….this group gives me so much hope because it is a movement towards that change we desperately need, a movement towards appreciating and respecting our differences while working together to achieve shared goals.” – a Christian member

“Because of the colonial mindset, at first I had the fear that everyone would try to convert me, but the more we are together, the less I have that fear. We share so many values, and the spiritual connection is the same.” – a Muslim member

Christians, Jews, and Muslims share similar practices and common Abrahamic roots. Without minimizing significant differences in beliefs, we sought to explore honestly places where our faith traditions converged and diverged. These conversations often led us to see familiar stories in new ways as we sought to look at them through the eyes of the other tradition. Reflecting on the various names/images for God found in the Christian Scriptures and the 99 names for God in Islam was a rich and challenging exercise. Knowing that God/Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is infinitely beyond our capacity to describe in finite human words, how have the respective traditions layered images and words on top of one another to communicate something of that mystery?

Another insight shared by a Christian member after our discussion of Mary/Maryam: “In Catholicism, we have so many names for Mary, but I was struck when a Muslim woman told me that one of the most common titles for Mary is Islam is that of ‘prophet’ and that Mary is considered to be in the line of prophets which includes Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad. Thinking of Mary not only as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘Blessed Virgin’ but also as a prophet was a real shift for me.”

Our conversations also led to debunking stereotypes for both Muslim and Christian members. One Muslim member shared, “I never thought I’d see Christians who take their faith so seriously. I had a stereotype that church was just a club where people got together socially – I still thought that even though I’ve lived in the United States for so many years. These meetings have opened the window to meet Christians who share some of the same practices and values, with the same depth of commitment.”

For me personally, participation in the women’s group was only one aspect of engaging deeply with the Islamic tradition over a period of several years. I began studying Arabic, purchased a good English translation of the Koran, devoured books of Sufi poetry, took a course in Islam at the University of Virginia, read everything I could get my hands on about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations, and even traveled to Morocco where I visited mosques and heard the call to prayer five times a day.

My academic study and personal relationships led me to create a narrative about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations that is infinitely more nuanced than the oversimplified, fear-based portrayals we are all too often peddled by pundits and politicians. I was deeply encouraged to learn about the years of cultural flourishing and interfaith engagement during the Caliphate of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain. The 1219 encounter between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil in the midst of the Fifth Crusade is another hopeful example from the past. There is a history of not just co-existence but collaboration between Muslims and Christians (and Jews); there is fertile ground for learning and dialogue. There are also hard truths to be faced – and mistakes to be learned from – about violence, intolerance, and fundamentalism present in the history of both traditions.

st francis and the sultan

St Francis of Assisi and the Sultan

It was on an airplane from Richmond to Boston that I realized how deeply I had been impacted internally though my years of engagement with Islam. While I’m not a nervous flyer, I was startled by the unexpected turbulence that hit shortly landing at Logan Airport. The plane lurched and rocked, and flight attendants gripped seat backs and wobbled precariously in the aisles. The turbulence worsened and I heard several gasps from nearby passengers.

 

La ilaha ilallah are the opening words of the Shahada (Muslim proclamation of faith). The Arabic words mean: “there is no God but God.” I had heard my Muslim sisters recite these words, seen them inscribed in beautiful calligraphy in mosques, and heard them repeated as dhikr, mantra-like, by Sufis.

Steeling myself against the bumps and dips, these were the words that rose up from somewhere deep and unexpected inside of me. I took a deep breath in, silently reciting: la illaha il allah. And exhaled: la illaha il allah. This carried on for the fifteen turbulent remaining minutes, until the plane landed at Logan and relieved passengers applauded.

It is said there are no atheists in foxholes: in life-or-death moments, our true spiritual colors are revealed. Safely on the ground and waiting at baggage claim, I felt a pang of guilt. Did this make me a bad Christian? Shouldn’t I have found consolation in the words of a psalm or traditional Catholic prayer? After all, I was on my way to study New Testament and ecclesiology!

Yet the shahada’s monotheistic statement of God’s oneness is just as Catholic as it is Islamic. Grace comes as God offers it, not as we would dictate. The grace offered to me during the tense moments of that flight came in the form of an Islamic spiritual practice. This revealed how my heart and soul – not just my mind – had been touched through my years of engagement with Islam. Something in my internal landscape had changed. Engaging deeply with the beliefs, practices, sacred text, and history of Islam alongside Muslims has altered my spiritual fingerprint. For this I am grateful to God. I believe am a better Catholic for it.

A Muslim woman in our group sent us a thank you email after we had gathered for a celebration. I share her words as a benediction for each of us who deeply engage with our own and other religious traditions for the sake of peace with justice in our world.

Alhamdulillah, this was a precious evening, and one that I will treasure and relate over and over to my friends and family. May God bless us, and may He allow our work together to radiate like a thousand suns the world over, until our earth is filled with spaces like those we shared this blessed evening, inshallah.”

Wendy L Wareham photography

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

“You are anointed for mercy…”

The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached on Saturday, November 7, 2015 at the FutureChurch liturgy “Celebrating Women Witnesses of Mercy” in Milwaukee, WI. The readings were: excerpts from Pope Francis’ March 13, 2015 homily; Dorothy Day’s “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy;” Psalm 33; and Matthew 25:31-45.

Mercy! What is it we are talking about when we talk about mercy – about God’s mercy, and our prayer to be merciful as God is merciful? And how, in the words of Pope Francis, might we “rediscover and make fruitful” the mercy of God? Pope Francis has said that mercy is “the very substance of the Gospel message,” and “the mission of the Church to be a witness to mercy.”

Where does mercy live? Not in our heads. It is not something we can think ourselves into. Mercy resides in our hearts – think of God telling God’s people in Ezekiel their hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Mercy is in our bodies. There are two words – one Hebrew and one Greek – which show us something about the nature of mercy.

The Greek word splanknon and the Hebrew word racham.  Literally, splanknon can be translated as “guts” or even “bowels” or “entrails” – in the ancient Near East, this was the seat of passions and deep emotion. In our time in English, we speak about knowing something in our gut – that deep, intuitive, visceral place within us.

The Hebrew racham – found primarily in the writings of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea – translated as “compassion” or “mercy” is closely related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” It is another very bodily image – and a profoundly feminine one, as well. In Isaiah 29, the prophet compares God’s mercy to a mother’s unconditional love, rhetorically asking “can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have mercy on the child of her womb?”

Anointing at prayer service (photo: Rhonda Miska)

Anointing at prayer service (photo: Rhonda Miska)

As these two Scriptural words illustrate, mercy is deeply physical, something we do with our whole selves. More than a matter of orthodoxy (right believing or right thinking), mercy is about orthopathy (right feeling) and orthopraxy (right action). A matter of heart and soul and hands more than head. Indeed, Matthew’s gospel seems to imply the measure of salvation is not in believing or thinking correctly, it is in acting correctly – in a way which honors that those most in need embody God’s presence. It is acting out of a depth of feeling. Think of Jesus weeping with Martha and Mary at Lazarus’ tomb, and then raising his dear friend from the dead.

Mercy involves a willingness to be broken-hearted – which is not easy to do. There is a temptation to numb out – either by shutting out what is happening in the world around us and pretending tragedies and loss aren’t happening, or by somehow making ourselves believe that those who suffer and don’t share our privilege are less human, or fundamentally different. Keeping our eyes open to the uncomfortable truth of suffering is just that…uncomfortable. This is where we turn to our cloud of witnesses, finding countless women and men who have courageously lived out mercy.

Sr. Karen Klimczak is one woman witness of mercy in our time. She ministered to women who were incarcerated and to ex-offenders, and was active in promoting peace and non-violence in Buffalo, New York. In 2006, at the Halfway House she helped to run, one of the men she accompanied murdered her while under the influence of crack cocaine when she caught him attempting to steal her phone. Poignantly, she was murdered on Good Friday – like the merciful Jesus she followed. Her life of service to those viewed with scorn and suspicion is a powerful embodiment of Francis’ words that no one is excluded from the mercy of God. “We must love to the point of folly,” said Dorothy Day. Karen certainly did so – and paid a much higher price than the loss of her wallet.

St. Joseph Sister Karen Klimczak (image: http://www.buffaloah.com/a/ndiv/418/ext/jpegs/08.jpg)

Our acts of mercy may often look like folly, as Dorothy said, they tax our faith. Providing food or shelter to a chronically homeless addict who might never escape his chains of addiction. Forgiving someone who has harmed us over and over. Investing our time and energy in a person who has no ability to repay us in any tangible way. Only through the eyes of faith, only through transformed and converted eyes, only when we (as Pope Francis says) “look beyond and not stop at the surface of things,” do these acts make any sense. Matthew 25 doesn’t just tell us to love the deserving poor or those who express gratitude – it simply and powerfully tells us that anyone in need is in fact the face of Christ in our world.

The extraordinary witness of Sister Karen is a grand act of mercy – we can think of other grand gestures of mercy, like a stay of execution for a death row inmate or the courage of a murder victim’s family member who develops a relationship with the offender in a restorative justice program. In reality, most moments of mercy are smaller, less newsworthy, and more daily. There are countless opportunities each day to choose to give another the benefit of the doubt and to release resentment; to be charitable instead of exacting and compassionate instead of judging with that noisy neighbor, that annoying coworker, that trying family member, that other driver on the interstate, that person in line ahead of us at the grocery store. And, of course, mercy towards ourselves when we inevitably fall short of our own hopes and expectations.

We know that lives of mercy, that is to say authentic Christian lives, aren’t easy. We don’t do this alone. We do this in community. Equally as important, we daily choose to live mercy in union with Christ, and out of a deeply contemplative place. This stance of open-heartedness (which inevitably leads to moments of broken-heartedness) only makes sense in these contexts: human community and deep union with God nourished by prayer.

We commit ourselves – our full selves, bodies, hearts, hands, minds, splanknon and racham – to the works of mercy. Inspired by Sister Karen and countless women and men who witness to God’s endless mercy, we say “yes” yet again to do mercy – to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead, shelter the homeless – even when it looks like folly. We pray again for our eyes to see Christ in those in need and for our hearts to be tender to their needs. May we – with Dorothy Day, Sister Karen, and countless others witnesses – walk the road of spiritual conversion and so enflesh God’s extravagant, endless mercy.

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

Of mercy, margins, and minorities

In the midst of conversations on inclusion during the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome, New York Archbishop Cardinal Dolan spoke of a “new minority” in the Catholic Church in an October 12 statement. Among its members: “couples who welcome God’s gift of many babies,” couples who don’t live together before marriage, wives who give up careers “to stay home and raise their children,” and gays who remain chaste. Dolan expressed a concern that such people “often feel excluded and feel themselves to be “a minority (emphasis his), certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church!”

The question of how to include those who feel excluded important, and I am grateful the Synod fathers took it up in their discussions. Dolan observed that those who are “single, those with same-sex attraction, those divorced, widowed, or recently arrived in a new country, those with disabilities, the aged, the housebound, racial and ethnic minorities” are among those who were the focus of these conversations about inclusion. Laudably, Dolan states of people in these groups:  “we in the family of the Church love them, welcome them, and need them.”

In my pastoral experience these “old” minority groups in the Church all too often do not feel welcomed, loved and needed. I think of a former Catholic who began worshipping in United Church of Christ community because they better accommodated to the unique needs of her family members with intellectual disabilities. I think of the a divorced and remarried Catholic woman who sits in the back pew, hoping no one will notice when she stays in her seat at communion time. I think of the Spanish-speaking immigrant woman living with an abusive partner who didn’t receive adequate counseling and support from her parish staff because of her limited English proficiency. I think of the Catholic friend who struggles to make her Protestant husband feel welcome in her parish when he cannot participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration. I think of a homily berating parishioners for being lazy when they arrive late to Mass when they – whose undocumented status means they are unable to obtain driver’s licenses – have spent up to an hour and a half traveling on unreliable public transportation to make it to the parish. I think of a family whose son is gay who avoid going to Mass altogether, or sit with baited breath during the homily at what the preacher might say. I think of undocumented Catholics (like this one whose testimony I shared in a previous post) who can’t produce baptismal records as requested to sign up their children for first communion preparation because all their possessions were left behind or stolen from them on their journey to the US.

The list could continue. These are not hypothetical situations, but real people I have encountered.

It has been through ministerial experiences like these that I have become aware of my privilege in Church as a white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class, non-disabled, educated native-English-speaking US citizen. I carry an “invisible backpack” of privilege because of these attributes. I have never worried any marriage I would seek would be blessed by the Church. I can find a Mass in my own language with an assembly (and a presider) who look like me relatively easily. I will likely hear preaching that is geared toward me as a member of majority culture. Parish materials are available to me in my native language. In attending faith-based peace and justice demonstrations with parishioners, I can choose to risk arrest without the potential of deportation. In addition, because of my race, I will probably be treated more kindly by law enforcement officials than parishioners of color. I can offer to serve as proclaimer and Eucharistic minister and not be hampered steps to approach the altar and ambo.

The invisible backpack of privilege (Peggy McIntosh).

The list could continue. In short, I have power and unearned privileges because of particular attributes.

Perhaps at this point you are internally rolling your eyes or shifting uncomfortably in your chair. Maybe you’re thinking, “there goes one of those bleeding heart Jesuit-educated social justice warriors types harping about privilege, bias, oppression, structural injustice and all that stuff again…”

To which I respond with a firm, unapologetic, Jesuit-educated “yes. Here I go again.” Not because I am trying to be trendy or a self-proclaimed prophet. Not because acknowledging the reality of my majority status in the Church is comfortable – indeed, the opposite is true. But because though I believe that “the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr), it won’t bend without acknowledgement of structural injustices and commitment to transforming systems to more clearly reflect God’s kingdom.

In order for conversion to happen and transformation to take place the realities of privilege and systemic injustice must first be honestly named. We cannot tire of calling for justice for those on the margins, listening to their voices, checking our own privilege, and recommitting ourselves as allies. In her essay in Catholic Women Speak (written as a resource for the Synod on the Family) Chilean Carolina del Rio Mena states that “the search for a more just order and God’s truth is not work that can be given up.” It is a long, hard slog much of the time.

Thankfully, as we celebrate on this feast of All Saints, we stand on the shoulders of many saints and witnesses who have struggled on behalf of justice. And we are the inheritors of a rich spiritual and intellectual tradition that can guide our individual and corporate efforts. Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy and going out to those on the margins is only the most recent articulation of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of particular concern for those excluded. From the Hebrew Scriptures’ continual refrain to care for the anawim (widows, orphans and strangers) to Jesus’ teachings about the extravagance of the father’s love for prodigal son to Catholic Social Teaching’s articulation of the preferential option for the poor, we are the inheritors of a long tradition of concern for the marginalized.

The final relatio of the Synod, paragraph 76 offers a beautiful challenge for which we can all pray and work in our respective communities and we strive to be Church that enfleshes Jesus’ radical inclusivity and concern for those on the margins. The relatio challenges ordained and lay members of the Church “to learn ‘the art of accompaniment so that ‘all may learn to take off his (sic) sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (cf. Ex 3:5). In our struggles for a more just and inclusive Church, may we see the other as sacred ground, and – to return to Dolan’s words – may all find in the Church a home where they are “loved, welcomed, and needed.”

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

Spirited Conversations Interview: “Listen Up, Pope Francis: Catholic Women Speak”

Listen up, Pope Francis: Catholic Women Speak

What could be a watershed event in the Catholic church is happening in October. Just after Pope Francis leaves the U.S., where he’ll be hosting the World Meeting of Families, he’s convening in Rome what’s called a Synod on the Family. But women–key members of families–won’t be included in a significant way in the Synod.  An anthology of essays called Catholic Women Speak has been published in response to this omission. This interview features one of the authors, Rhonda Miska. She writes about her experience as a young single professional woman who’s worked in churches and retreat centers. This interview is part of a project called Spirited Conversations, in which Jennifer Szweda Jordan interviews inspiring people and explores rich places in the Catholic tradition and addresses topical issues.

https://beta.prx.org/stories/160392/details

(Paulist Press, 2015)

(Paulist Press, 2015)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She currently serves as Coordinator of Programming/Development at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, IA. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press) which will be launched in Rome this week.

Of Birthdays, Blood, and Blessings

Jacob wrestling with God (image: http://thefunstons.com/?p=6601)

Jacob wrestling with God
(image: http://thefunstons.com/?p=6601)

Earlier this month I celebrated my 35th birthday, which coincided with a return to my native Midwest after many years away. I reconnected with many friends – some whom I have known for over 20 years since we were fresh-faced (or pimple-faced!) high school freshmen. We shared highlights of our lives: marriages, children’s births, graduate studies, job promotions, travels, and other joys. In each of these conversations, there was also the acknowledgment of wounds – miscarriages, divorce, untimely deaths of loved ones, depression, medical diagnoses, and job losses. You don’t get to 35 without wounds of one kind or another. In our conversations on post-high school/post-college “real world” lives, there were both joys and wounds to name.

In the midst of moving I came across a prayer card, given to me years ago by my friend Catherine, a fellow undergrad French major. The prayer card included a French mistake that was at once ironic and illuminating: she had written “Que Dieu te blesse” instead of “Que Dieu te bénisse.” Instead of saying “May God bless you,” she had inadvertently said, “May God wound you.”

“Blessing” and “blood” share the same Germanic/Old English root which etymologists speculate reflect the ancient practice of consecrating a place or a thing with the use of blood. Think of the marking of the lintels with lamb’s blood in Exodus, or Christian language of being “washed in the blood of the lamb.” While the word “blessing” has been sanitized and prettied-up by Hallmark cards or Christian bookstore merchandise, the etymological connection between “blessing” and “blood” remind us of an uncomfortable truth: blessings aren’t all warm and fuzzy. Encounters with the Holy might change us in difficult – even wounding – ways. This truth is reflected throughout scripture – from Jacob/Israel wrestling with God in Genesis to Zacharias being struck dumb in Luke to Saul/Paul being blinded in Acts. This truth is reflected in our own lived experience – as I clearly saw in the faith journeys of my age peers. Continue reading

Of Whales and Wonder, Water and Webs

“Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” – Mary Oliver

Lime Kiln State Park, San Juan Island, Washington State – mid-summer evening. Waves of the Haro Strait are punctuated by the jumping of pink salmon – sudden silver streaks against the deep blue of the water. Beside the old lighthouse, people congregate on rocks or picnic tables for the daily performance of the sunset. As the gold sun slips slowly behind Vancouver Island, the mountains on the horizon become blue and brilliantly silhouetted.

Lime Kiln State Park sunset (photo credit: Rhonda Miska)

Lime Kiln State Park sunset (photo credit: Rhonda Miska)

Suddenly, silently, the elegant black dorsal fins of the two Southern Resident orca whales slice the water, submerge, and then reappear. Around me, I hear gasps of delight. From where I am perched on a rock near the shore, a seven year old boy – who up until this point had been more interested in teasing his younger sister than in the natural spectacle – is transfixed and big-eyed as he takes in his first views of wild orcas.   It is a collective, spontaneous experience of wonder.

Whales have captured the human imagination for millennia – likely because they are similar to us in so many ways. They are mammals, social beings with strong family ties, intelligent, affectionate, exhibit a range of emotions, and use language to communicate. Due to their enlarged limbic system and high number of spindle cells, a case can be made that whales are capable of empathy. Some even assert that whales are “non-human persons.”   Whales are revered in ancient cultures from around the world, sometimes seen as kindred spirits to humans.

Our kinship to orcas makes the threats they face – among them, acoustic trauma due to noise pollution, bio-accumulations of toxins like heavy metals and flame retardants in their blubber, hunger caused by declining supply of chinook salmon – seem pressing and personal.  The movement to “save the whales” has led to some significant wins, mostly recently bringing down Elwha and Glines Canyon dams to restore the salmon population. Organizers and activists continue to call for and end of captivity of orcas. Out of our wonder at and appreciation for orcas, we humans have taken sustained and consistent action.

As I sat on the rocks at Lime Kiln State Park watching the sky turn from blue to pink to lavender, I remembered the Web of Life station in the Meditation Trails at Shepherd’s Corner in Columbus, Ohio. The web invites visitors to experience interconnectedness visually and physically. No matter which strand of the web you are holding, you will feel it if someone pulls on any other strand. It is a kinesthetic way of experiencing the truth Dr. King articulated: “We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” The orcas are a strand in that web. We are a strand in that web.

Web of Life at Shepherd's Corner (photo: Dominican Sisters of Peace)

Web of Life at Shepherd’s Corner (photo: Dominican Sisters of Peace)

There are many other strands in that web that we humans find much less compelling. The Southern Resident orcas who graced us with their presence at sunset primarily eat chinook salmon. Chinook salmon eat – among other things – amphipoda . They are shrimp-like crustacean scavengers who eat detritus (read: feces). Now, let’s be honest: even with the best PR campaign, “save the amphipoda” will never take off as a rallying cry. We will never see amphipoda-inspired hashtags in social media organizing. There will never be the amphipoda cinematic equivalent of “Free Willy.”  Yet amphipoda are a part of that web. To use Thomas Berry’s language, the amphipoda – no matter how humble by human estimation – are among that great “communion of subjects.”

Amphipoda (image: Wikipedia)

Amphipoda (image: Wikipedia)

I’m going to keep pushing beyond orcas and amphipoda: perhaps the circle of communion and concern has to extend even beyond “all sentient beings.” Can our web of “all our relations” (to borrow the Native American term) exclude trees and mountains, watersheds and air? I lived for one year in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania where 90% of the land has been leased for non-conventional natural gas extraction (read: fracking). I had a conversation with a local man who had leased his land. When I asked if he was concerned about potential contamination of the ground water, he responded matter-of-factly:

“Well, if the water goes bad, then HillCorp promises to ship in water for as long as I need it!”

I struggled to understand his cavalier approach to accessing clean water and to articulate a response that was respectful and honest.  Centuries ago, Francis of Assisi spoke of how Sister Water praises God – intuiting the connections of the web of creation and their praise of the Creator. Our current Pope Francis, in Paragraph 30 of Laudato Si, speaks of access to clean water as “basic and universal human right.” Beyond valuing water for the way that it serves human beings, might we even embrace a “deep ecology” that sees water itself as having a right to remain inviolate?

How do we get from here to there? How do we expand our embrace and understanding of this web from orcas to amphipoda to water itself so that nothing is seen as expendable and there is no part of life that we are willing to desecrate and destroy?

Perhaps we come back full circle to wonder, to the movement within that seven year old boy at Lime Kiln State Park that caused his eyes to widen, his jaw to drop and an astonished “wow” to escape his lips. Awe and wonder are named as gifts of the Spirit in our Catholic tradition. It is a grace to pray for – and we cooperate with that grace by opening our eyes to beauty. Laudato Si speaks of the world as “a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

Orca at sunset (Photo credit - www.hickerphoto.com)

Orca at sunset (Photo credit – http://www.hickerphoto.com)

Dorothy Day was fond of quoting Dostoyevksy’s line that “the world will be saved by beauty.” If we are to move into the ecozoic era, at least one step in the Great Turning is to see beauty in all strands of the web – from the graceful orca to the bottom-feeding amphipoda to the vast expanse of water that acts like a circulatory system for our planet – to open our eyes and hearts enough to utter our own “wow” of wonder.

Wendy L Wareham photography

Wendy L Wareham
photography

About the author: About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table which will be published by Paulist Press in September.