Sunday, January 8, 2017

Little Christmas 2017: Faith, Hope, and Light

Last Christmas (insert line from the delightful 80s Christmas song of the same name here. RIP, George Michael!)
I was in such denial on Christmas when my brother in law interrupted our caroling session to share the sad news about this man.

I focused a lot on Joy in Advent and in the Christmas season last year.  This year, (continue to insert line from delightful Christmas song here) I have been struck by the image of light and the need for it and hope.

My posts from 2016 included a lot about Mercy (naturally, since it was the Year of Mercy) and also (surprisingly for me) a lot about Mary. This year, as we anticipate perhaps some dark changes because of the alarming shifts in our global and national climate, I want to focus on hope and light.

Yesterday, we had our first snowfall of the winter season. In Richmond, everything- stores, gyms, museums, schools, offices- shut down. But the bars stay open! Priorities! So some friends and I have made it our annual snowday tradition to dig out of the snow and meet at some of the bars within walking distance.

As we met and chatted (and drank) yesterday, one of my very dear friends who is always so gracious about talking about faith even though she does not particularly claim a faith for herself, started talking about the differences between the various interpretations of Christianity. This has been a big thing for me recently as I still can't wrap my head around the past election and how Christians could justify voting for a man who is against so much of what Jesus explicitly spoke FOR: namely- women, the poor, and helping others.

She said that she understood many of her family and friends who are Christian operate out of fear: fear of hell, fear of doing something wrong, fear of missing a sign from God. Which I thought was a really good point and perhaps how I even lived my Christianity at certain parts of my life.

But in recent years, for me, Christianity has always been about HOPE: Hope of heaven, hope of doing the right thing, hope of seeing a sign from God. And I think this is a really good distinction that we who are Christian need to make for ourselves to keep us in check: Are we operating out of fear? Or hope?

I also wrote in my last post about the need to focus and be a the light in the darkness, which is what today's feast of the Epiphany is all about.


The Magi were learned men who had riches and education. They had studied stars and philosophy, and read about the prophecy of the Messiah that would be from Bethlehem and foretold by a star. They saw this star and they followed it. Their journey began about one thing- perhaps curiosity, prestige, answers- and became about a very different thing, I'm sure, along the way. The priest at my parish stressed that the wise men had to follow with faith. Their studies and their hypothesis and knowledge could only take them so far. At some point, they had to press on in faith.

And so it is with us in our own "stars" and our own journeys that we are all on in our lives. We make choices, we calculate, we can look back with hindsight, but at some point, we have to push on in faith that we are being led in the right direction (and I like that this theme of "Faith" also ties back into my George Michael remembrance....)

A saint whose feast falls on Jan 6 but is perhaps often overlooked because of the feast of the Epiphany, is St. Andre Bessette who the priest at my school gave a great homily on last week.

St. Andre was perhaps the opposite of the wise men: he was uneducated, not wealthy, not able bodied, but had great faith.

St Andre was an orphan who became a doorman for a Catholic school because he was sickly and couldn't do much else. The priest at Mass pointed out to us that "we might be smarter than St. Andre, we might be stronger than St. Andre, but we are NOT more humble than St. Andre." I thought that sentiment was very true and something to strive for.

So putting all of these themes and messages together: light in darkness, HOPE, following and persevering in faith...these things are what it means to be a Christian to me. And I hope that these will be themes that carry us through the Christmas season and this year. I also hope that other Christians will join me in looking at the examples these feasts set for us: that whether educated or uneducated, rich or poor, we all have our own stars to follow and all paths are equally important and valuable.

Merry Christmas!

Peace,
Julia



Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Light in the Darkness- Advent Week 3

It has been over a month since the election and my hope has spun around in various stages since then. I woke up in darkness, but then felt the support and compassion in the safe spaces of the messages being sent around me by like minded people. I wanted to use this dark time as an opportunity to be light to others.

But the devil doesn't like it when we try to light the darkness. He wants the darkness to permeate. And he is willing to use whatever it takes to tempt us into darkness. And he is very good at disguising what is false into something that seems good and true.

This year, like perhaps no other year that I have had in ministry, I have been able to take my Media Studies degree and put it to use even some 13 years later. The media and the face of it may change, but the underlying theories of mass media have not. Fortunately, I studied the theories of media instead of the production of it, which seemed crazy at the time, but now we live in a world in which the mediums have changed, but no one knows how to use these mediums or what messages they send.

I have long been a big advocate of using the media to evangelize, to spread the good news. But this gets harder and harder to do when so much news is fake and people no longer know what to believe. Everyone has become an author of "news" now, and even those who are good and earnest can be easily swayed.

We need the message of the Gospel more than ever these days, for this message has stayed true for thousands of years and offers light in the darkness.

My advent promise this season has been to read from the prophet Isaiah, which we kind of do anyway as a Church in Advent. The readings from Isaiah have hit close to home more than ever this year, as he describes a world that is living in darkness, similar to the one I feel like we are living in now, but offers the hope of the coming Savior. It is this hope that we need now. It is the message that has not been altered. It is the message that has proven true over time.

It was the reading from Zephaniah that really struck me yesterday on the feast of St. Lucy (one of my favorite saints. Mainly because I think the image of her holding the plate with her eyeballs is cool)


"Thus says the LORD:
Woe to the city, rebellious and polluted,
to the tyrannical city!
She hears no voice,
accepts no correction;
In the LORD she has not trusted,
to her God she has not drawn near.

For then I will change and purify
the lips of the peoples,
That they all may call upon the name of the LORD,
to serve him with one accord;" - Zephaniah 3:1-2

I think the thing that makes me saddest is that this election seems to have made us no longer want to listen to Truth or each other. The line from Zephaniah "she hears no voice" struck me. I feel like those that have been elected leaders aren't listening to people (or to intelligence briefings that might help them better run the country). And I think that we have heard so many voices over this past year that we just don't want to listen to each other any more, myself included.

In Advent, we are waiting for this time when the Lord will "purify the lips of the people...to serve him with one accord" but we cannot force this. This has to happen in God's time. We can encourage and support one another in prayer and action, but this is not something that we can make happen. No matter how I might want to force someone's hand or "purify their lips" on my own, this is for God to bring about, no one else. This brings me to my next point.

I have also been saddened this year because more and more people that call themselves Christians are not setting the example that we need to set. We are adding to "the tyrannical city" and oppressing people either with our words and/or what we choose to look away from. I have found that fellow Christians are either trying to force people's hands and condemn beliefs or are looking away from what is going on in our world completely. I have already addressed the forcing of the hand and oppression of others. And to the latter, this is a time of waiting, but I have been always taught that Advent is a time of "active waiting." We should be taking action, not just waiting to see what will happen.

So fake news, "tyrannical cities", passive Christians...where is the hope? Our hope is in our trust. I have to trust in goodness and God prevailing as the prophets foretell. Do I have to trust the media and my elected officials? Not blindly. They will have to earn my trust. And we have the right to challenge and correct them if what we have trusted them to do is not being done.

Though it has been tough to trust people of late for all of the reasons I have mentioned above, I have to keep telling myself we are a broken, flawed people. But that doesn't mean that we have to settle for that. We can work for change. And change is mentally and physically exhausting. But we have models for us in the saints, in our Blessed Mother, and in the Savior who stood up in the face of adversity, relying on their trust and relationship with God.

And so we persevere in hope, having to get up, dust ourselves off and try again as these models have showed us. There is light in the darkness, but we have to actively follow and pursue it, not just wait and see what happens.

St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind, open our eyes to the Light of Truth in Jesus this Advent and always.

Peace,
Julia

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Happy New Year: Advent 2016

Happy New Year! Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the first day in our new liturgical year! Most people I know can't wait to get out of 2016. As I posted last time, 2016 hasn't been too bad for me personally, but I am ready for a new focus and Advent is always a great time to slow down and re-focus.

I took this time this last week between the Feast of Christ the King and the start of Advent to take a breath and make a little mini-retreat. I am still not sure what 2017 and the New Year will bring, but I focused a lot this past week on trust (which is always a recurring theme for us with God, I feel like...just look at all the stories in the Old Testament and salvation history! Struggling to trust God has kind of been our thing as a human race).

I stayed in the mountains for a couple of nights which was beautiful and peaceful and this image of the road kind of dropping off into the mountains where I stayed ended up being one of my meditations in trust:

For example, I don't know where the next year will take me, much like you cannot see the direction of this road until you get to it. This is also a great exercise in being in the present moment.  I know that there will be some curves and valleys and hills beyond this, but I need to trust that the Lord will be there leading me and just focus on walking in that moment.

In addition to re-focusing on trust, I meditated on what I want to do for Advent this year. Last year, I used Christmas songs to pray with which I still think was a kind of cool meditation and did help to get me into the Christmas spirit.

While in the mountains, though, I thought of the themes of Peace and Waiting as are common for Advent and I thought about how the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was a really good model for these themes. And so I've decided to read a little from Isaiah each day (which we often use during Advent in the daily readings anyways. For example, today's first reading is from Isaiah and is about how Christ will bring peace not war which is a contrast from what Jesus says in the Gospel a little bit, but that's another reflection for another time! I'm all about beating our "swords" into "plowshares" right now with all of the crazy post-election talk going on between everyone these days. We can certainly put down our social media "swords" and work on helping one another instead!)

I also want to continue my meditation on Mary since I seemed to have turned a corner with her of late in the way that I perceive her. I am also doing a talk on Mary for our RCIA group in December which will be a nice challenge and an additional reason to meditate on her this Advent.

Mary, like Isaiah, is another character we often journey with during Advent for she, too, is waiting for Christ in a unique way as His mother. I'm going to focus on her and her many titles using this litany and hope to get some light and inspiration this Advent!

How are you going to prepare for Christmas and the new liturgical year? It's already here! I'm grateful for this built in time of Advent for mediation on the peace, light, and hope that Christ brings into our world. Happy New Year!

Peace,
Julia

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Feast of Christ the King 2016: A Year in Review

Another liturgical year comes to a close today, and with that, we reflect on this past year: the Year of Mercy. I am so grateful that Pope Francis had the foresight to give us such a focus this past year, because as many of us have expressed throughout the year, 2016 was kind of the worst. It wasn't bad for me personally, but so many of my friends had trying years and our country and our world certainly suffered a lot: from the deaths of some treasured artists like David Bowie and Prince, to earthquakes and floods, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the "dumpster fire" that was this presidential election. So I am grateful that Pope Francis gave us this focus of Mercy ahead of time and I pray that we can carry that focus into the new liturgical year.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King which ends the liturgical year and so I post yet another "Year in Review." Again, 2016 was pretty alright for me, but I continue to pray that Mercy will guide us into Advent even though the "doors of Mercy" are now shut. We need Mercy now more than ever, so I will continue to carry this year's theme with me into the new liturgical year. 

I rang in the New Year as I often do with some of my besties...this year in NYC!
 Then I went to Philly to celebrate one of my original ride or die's 35th bday! (Little did we know we'd be taking an adventure of a lifetime together later this year!!)
 I got to sponsor this new favorite into the Catholic Church
 And I celebrated my 35th with friends and lots of HATS!
 I went to Vegas and got to visit one of my favorites in CA
 And we celebrated the life of a dear friend who was gone too soon...we still miss you, Steph.

 I finished out my first year as a Middle School teacher with an amazing staff at a school that I love!
 I went home to Ohio for a week in the summer and got to have fun with many of my cousins...
 More family and cousins :)
 And was reunited with college friends in the land Down Under!!!!
 New Zealand/Australia 2016!!!

I was inspired and challenged by the Year of Mercy and participated in my first Art shows!
 I wore my 8th bridesmaid dress and celebrated the wedding of two of my best friends...


And ended the year with a quick trip from the 'rents in RVA!

So I have much to be thankful for as we close out this year and look towards Advent. I have no idea what 2017 will hold, but I'm finding being in the present moment much easier as I get older. I know that 2017 will bring blessings and challenges, but I am grateful that I have so many loved ones to encounter these blessings and challenges with. I am excited for new opportunities, new ways to grow closer to others and the Lord. Bring on Advent and the new year!

Happy New Year!
Peace,
Julia

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Feeling Better: Hope and Mercy

I needed to write my post last week as I was coming out of a dark fog waking up into a reality I didn't think possible. I apologize that I strayed from my typically theological narrative. I don't want to ignore that post or "move past it" because I still very much am feeling through how powerful the results of this election are for me. I am still sad. And it is not because one political party won out over another. Voting is never about parties for me. It is about who we elect to represent and make decisions for our country and I am still very sad and disappointed in that decision.

But this weekend and this week, I am reminded that even a president is not my sole leader or authority. He or she plays a very real and powerful authority in our world, but not the most powerful. I have had to go back to my original narrative and voice: God is our center. I prayed a novena before the election to put Him in control of whatever the outcome. And I still believe that He is watching over us (He might be shaking His head!) and has a plan. 

This coming Sunday is the last Sunday of this liturgical year. And this year has been marked as the Year of Mercy. After the results of last week and the backlash that we have seen in protests around the country since those results, it seems this Year of Mercy has really been preparing us for the year to come. How are we (who are clearly so divided as a country right now) going to come together and have mercy for one another?

I, personally, have tried to be much more conscious of being kinder to others, looking others in the eye, and just generally being more compassionate this week. While my initial response was anger and disbelief, it has moved to- not acceptance per se because I will never accept that this result is "okay"- but more hopeful. Though some of the protests have been violent, I've mostly just experienced kindness, openness, and acceptance from others who share the concern for those who may be hurt by this election. Not ironically, they are the same as those that were outcast in Jesus' day: women, the sick, the poor, the foreigner. 

The readings for this coming Sunday's feast of Christ the King remind us of the kind of King we have. It is not a Gospel reading of Jesus in all of His Glory in heaven. The reading we get is of Him on the cross, offering His life for the good of mankind. And one of the thieves crucified next to Him denies Christ's kingship, while the other acknowledges it: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." Jesus assures the thief- the outcast, the sinner- that "indeed, he will be with Him in paradise." We have a king that sacrifices Himself and forgives. 

That is the model that we have for authority. Not what we have seen in this election. And I will continue to pray that more and more people will accept humility as a sign of kingship. Though, we are in good company- it didn't make sense to the people in Jesus' time and it still doesn't seem to make sense to us now. 

Over and over again, I have mentioned how I am humbled when I work with people in the RCIA program at my Church who want to become Catholic. Tonight I prayed with a few men who are seeking full entrance into the Church. One in particular was very honest with me, we prayed together, and at the end both had tears in our eyes. We talked about our appreciation for the blessed Mother and all her different "faces": Our Lady of Guadelupe, Lourdes, Czestochowa- she presents herself to all of us in ways that we can relate to. 

I have long struggled in my relationship with Mary, but I also read an article recently that reminded me that she embodies so many of those outcast today: she was a young pregnant girl, pregnant outside of marriage, a Middle Eastern girl in an oppressed society, mostly voiceless in the eyes of her society...SHE was the one that was chosen to give us the Son of God. She represents so many of those who I am sad for and afraid for today. So I may have finally solved my own Mary mystery for myself: Mary represents those who are outcast- those we are fighting for, crying for, praying for. And I will lift them up to her for the next four years and as long as I have to for She is the one who, through the Holy Spirit, brought Mercy personified into the world. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us. 

Peace,
Julia

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Stronger Together

I have tried, over the years, to not get too political in my blog, in my job, or in social media posts. My friends and family who know me well know where my political views lie. I, of course, pray and vote with my conscience, and that is often difficult because as a Catholic there is never a clear cut candidate or party.

But this election has broken me. I never talk about who I will vote for in class, but all of my students this year knew that I did not like Donald Trump. It started back in the primaries when there were several candidates. None of us thought he would actually become the nominee. Then he did.

Then launched, as we all know, one of the most horrifying and telling presidential campaigns in recent history. As a public speaking and media literacy teacher, I told my students that this campaign was different for many reasons because instead of using facts (logos) and ethos (credibility) for their rhetoric as most candidates in the past, these two nominees were using pure pathos (emotions) to persuade their supporters. And I do believe that one did that even more so than the other. He relied on less facts and more fear and anger to get his votes. And he won the election.

In the past, I have remained silent when I was told that there was only one party or candidate that I could or could not vote for. This year, I broke my silence because I could not stand by and be told that someone who has been caught on tape saying racist, misogynistic, and terrifying things was a candidate that I should vote for. This is not who we are as Christians, though it seems to be who we are as Americans right now.

In many ways, because of where our focus is right now as a country (aka ourselves and self preservation), we brought this upon ourselves. I could continue to be negative and add to this web of fear speech, but instead I'm going to shift my focus for I still believe that we are "Stronger Together."

When I woke up this morning I knew that I would have to put on a brave face, but I was sad and nervous about how to address my students. Again, I teach media so we have all been watching this election together. Though, it was so tough this year since we had a candidate saying things like  "I could literally shoot someone in the street and would still get votes." How was I supposed to talk about this with 11 year olds? How was I suppose to tell them that in my 35 years of life I have never experienced anything like this and this is not what an election should be?

When I walked in this AM, though, my students read me well and came in somewhat quiet. I knew that many of them (as I work in a rich, white, privileged area) were actually excited about the outcome because their parents were. They asked respectfully: "can we talk about the election?" While I really didn't want to at all, I knew that they needed to and we should. I just reminded them as I always teach them that we can have a discussion but we need to look at all sides and be respectful of others. We were able to do so and all was well. I even got some knowing looks and smiles from former students in the hallways and I appreciated their sincere empathy and sympathy.

And I am so grateful that I do teach religion because there are always, always opportunities to pray. We prayed for our future elected officials. We prayed for the state of our country. We reflected on Luke 14:7-14 aka the parable of the wedding banquet that teaches us to be humble and reach out to the poor. We talked about how Christ is a light in the darkness. And this started to turn my dreary day around.

I thought when I woke up this AM, the world had ended. But as I went through my day and encountered Christ, I am encouraged and motivated by others. We are not going to sit back and be voiceless. We are going to have our voices be heard: as women, as children of God, as Christians, as humans. As it says in Scripture: "Perfect Love casts out fear." Christ alone is our perfect love. And Love always trumps hate.

We are clearly divided as a country right now, this election has made that clear. But we are "stronger together." I hope that this election brings about the change of our hearts so that both sides can stop living in fear and start working and building a strong future together.




Saturday, September 3, 2016

Vulnerability and Mercy: Reflections on Mother Teresa and the Single Life

I know that I start every blog post in the same way. I know it. I naturally begin with something akin to: "where has the time gone?" And I really can't stop myself from saying it because I continually think it. It is September and there are four months left in 2016. Before I know it I will be writing my Year in Review post! But present moment, I keep reminding myself. Present moment.

This weekend is Labor Day weekend and these past couple of years where I have taken to working a part time job in addition to my full time job (why don't we pay our teachers more, y'all? ;) I appreciate the day set aside for Labor Day so much more. I was walking home last night after a full day at school and 5 hours at my part time gig and thinking: "we as Americans spend so much of our lives making money or working." And don't get me wrong, I am grateful for our strong work ethic and economy here in the States. I have traveled enough to see the alternatives but I think that we also see the downside of our sometimes misplaced value on money and capitalism...but that's not what this blogpost is about. Well, kind of.

In addition to it being Labor Day weekend and my finally having a day off, the Church is canonizing one of our modern day saints, Mother Teresa. Her life and her community which she founded has been surrounded by controversy in recent years which just makes me sad. Regardless of articles and books published with theories about her faith or misplaced funds, there is no taking away from the fact that Mother Teresa served the poorest of the poor and she made this her life's work. I'm pretty sure many of us wouldn't last a month walking the streets that she walked and encountering what she encountered in poverty. I can't deny that to look at her face, she reflects God and holiness to me:

I believe she is proof that happiness and holiness is what makes us most beautiful. There is no denying that she radiates a kind of unconventional but undeniable beauty. 

I will admit there are other Theresas that I have become more faithful to over the years: St. Therese of Lisieux is my girl and St. Teresa of Avila I have mad respect for 'cause she was a tough broad (and I don't think that she would mind me saying that).

The book "The Four Teresas" which I read in 2011 features the 3 Teresas already mentioned in this post as well as Edita Stein (turned St. Teresa Benedicta). All 4 are super powerful, holy women who I admire deeply but have mainly been drawn to the two I've already described.

In praying and reflecting with my students and with myself on Mother Teresa this week, though, I realize that she is a great example of Mercy as well as Vulnerability- two things I find myself thinking about often in this blog. Mercy and vulnerability really go hand in hand. When we are feeling vulnerable, we require mercy and are grateful for those who meet us with it. But in order to show true mercy, we must not only meet the vulnerable where they are at, but allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable as well. I believe that true Mercy comes in solidarity- when we not only meet others where they are but then sit there with them either physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

I mentioned in my last post that I was blessed to get to do this with friends from college in our formative years and also last month on our little reunion tour in Australia. We shared together, laughed together, cried together. We showed each other mercy but also met each other in vulnerability.

I have prayed so long about my vocation and have come to terms with that the Lord may be calling me to the single life and that's okay! I mean, let's be honest, I totally enjoy and it and humbly say that I think I live it pretty well! We all long, however, to be in relationship and to be vulnerable with other people. But I have finally realized that there are more ways to do that than just dating and marriage.

I read this book this summer and while not a Catholic text, it definitely helped me grow in confidence in my current state in life!

I was perhaps at my most vulnerable when I was discerning religious life- putting my life and my heart in the hands of God and also other women that I came to trust and still trust to this day. I have also been vulnerable in my attempts at dating and relationships, in my writing and in my art, but again, find myself most vulnerable in situations with these close friendships that I have fostered and put time into over the years.

What many of my college friends and I have- and also many of  my friends later in life- is perhaps (dare I say) even stronger than some marriages. There are people in romantic relationships and marriages who do not allow themselves the vulnerability or mercy that some of my friendships and family members offer me.

All this to say that there is a lot of change in the talk about the single life lately. And I am totally grateful to have people in the media finally representing a more realistic version of the single woman. We aren't the Miss Havishams crazily waiting in wedding gowns for someone to rescue us from our "misery." We are thriving, living, and growing even if our lives haven't taken the conventional path.

I keep a very tidy apartment and change my attire daily, thank you very much!

Dating and marriage are in very different states than they were years ago, and to be honest, dating and marriage in the 1950s weren't exactly the dream, either. Yeah sure, maybe it was a simpler time, but I'm okay with being married with kids at 19 not being the norm or sole expectation for women anymore.

To tie this back to my points on our American values and the canonization of Mother Teresa (can she get there, folks?? Can she?! ) ...

 Whether serving the poorest of the poor in community like our soon-to-be-saint Mother Teresa, serving children with a spouse, or serving friends and family in need, we all have the opportunity and call to be vulnerable and show others mercy. And this should be our priority as human beings. For I don't think that there is any denying that when we are in solidarity with one another, we are at our strongest. Mother Teresa showed us this in a concrete way, but there are many ways to show solidarity.

I'm continuing in this Year of Mercy, to look at the many ways we can grow and show Mercy to each other. Those ways don't always look the same or are conventional, but that doesn't make them any less valuable or important for our growth.

(Saint!) Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!

Peace,
Julia