Jesus Christ: Liberator

I have had a great year as a student at Creighton University. Earlier this year, as I was fulfilling some undergraduate theology credits for my master’s program, I was enrolled in an amazing class with a professor who inspired me. The class was Theology 331, Jesus Christ: Liberator, a christology class. Here is one of the answers I gave on our final exam last May. Who is Jesus?

Mt St Francis last supper

“For me, in the figure of Monseñor Romero, Christ passed through El Salvador.” This one line in a documentary has stayed with me since I watched it. This is the Jesus I have come to know in my life, through my readings of scripture and story and narrative. The Jesus who reaches out to those left behind or discarded. I first met this Jesus as a seven-year old whose mother had died. That poor lost little girl was tended to by three nuns when she made her first communion in second grade. They saw her grief and worry and brought her to the table.

I have seen that Jesus who cares in a very special way for the poor all over the world as I have walked the halls of congress with my own disabled sister as we advocated for food and nutrition policy, for sustainable development, for increased funding for HIV/AIDS patients.

I have seen that Jesus in Iraq and Syria as he walks in the refugee camps and tends to newborn babies whose parents have nothing and no one to turn to. I have heard others tell his story in the form of kidnapped and murdered priests, just like Oscar Romero.

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisAs I have participated in this class and read all three authors, I have read the words out loud to my precious husband. “Look! Do you see this? This is what I keep saying over and over! You cannot profess to love God and not love your neighbor. These two are inseparable! That neighbor on the side of the road who looks scary is obviously in need of help. We can’t walk by her like the others.” What would Jesus do seems so cliché…but how do we answer that question, cliché or not?

That question and so many others rise from the depth of a heart that has not been immunized against empathy and compassion by the consumer society around me, but inflamed by the lack of justice in our laws and institutions. Sometimes it has been a lonely journey to walk. To sit in church and hear about Jesus week after week, but only in the sense that he is some kind of ideal absolute, is not what has given me cause to step out and walk with him. That Jesus is an idol, a statue on the shelf that I cannot reach.

The Jesus in this class is the Jesus that asks me to open my eyes and look around to see that others need this hands-on, give-me-a-hug, wipe-my-tears-away, human contact that reminds them that they, too, are human beings, made to love and to be loved. This is the Jesus who tells me to conscienticize myself: ask the questions of why is the world like this? What have we done to make it this way? What can we do to liberate and heal it? See. Judge. Act.

From my first reading of the entirety of scripture upon discovering Micah 6:8, my faith finally had the simplicity of six words to guide me: Act justly. Love tenderly. Walk humbly. This is the praxis of Jesus that his life demonstrated and I believe him when he tells me in Matthew 25 that our judgment will be based on this. Even when we don’t call on his name and step out in this way not expecting to see him in the moment, he is there, and we are loving him by loving our neighbor.

This is the Jesus who calls out the rich who withhold from the poor and can’t understand how serving the common good is how we all develop fully as persons, and the hypocritical church leader whose letter-following legality keeps people out and denies them hope.

This is the Jesus I have met in the community of this class. This is Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, anyone who stands against the commodity form and sees their lonely neighbor as a person in need of human contact and comes into her life as friend. I have met this Jesus in this class and will always be grateful that I had the chance to share him with others.

Dona nobis pacem.

Love like Francis…just like the sisters

Mt St Francis Love like FrancisBeyond this, there is a desire for immediacy sustained by consumerism (and reinforced by aspects of information technology) that tends to encourage a memory-less culture without a sense of historical identity. – Philip F. Sheldrake (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, chapter 26, page 461, edited by Arthur Holder, Blackwell Publishing, 2005)

In preparation for the journey ahead into the Masters of Arts in Ministry program at Creighton University which begins next week, I am reading some materials assigned by a professor to get ready to dive into the study of Christian spirituality through ancient writings of monks and martyrs. The quote above struck me as I thought back on a quick trip to Dubuque, Iowa, last week to visit my Aunt Carolyn, a 60-year member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Holy Family.

Mt St Francis Xaveria TermehrJana and I spent two nights and three meals with the sisters of this order. As opposed to an environment of the “immediacy sustained by consumerism,” we found ourselves in a place of a long vision forward sustained by faith. We met so many of these living saints now retired – if that is a word that can be associated with those whose calling is eternal – in the motherhouse of this order founded in the 1870s in Germany. Foundress Sister Xaveria Termehr is interred in the same cemetery as my grandmother Bea Thirtle, under a plain headstone and surrounded by others like it of her daughter-sisters who followed her into this order and lived their lives in service to God’s kingdom.

It is not an ancient order like those whose words I will read in my theology class, but as I learned in my short visit with heart open to their story, it is a servant group of women who have been called into it. Aunt Carolyn gave me her histories so I could read up on them in the days to come.

Mt St Francis mission statementThey are a Franciscan order after Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. The images of these two are everywhere in the house and also in the close-by Shalom Spirituality Center which was the original Mount Saint Francis motherhouse. When I was a little girl and first visited my aunt as she was then known, Sr. Mary Edith Ann, they wore brown habits like Francis. Their mission statement was framed on the wall: Rooted in the Gospel and in the spirit of Francis and Clare, the Sisters of St. Francis live in right relationship with all creation. The culture of their patron saint is a living witness to those walking today.

They have founded schools and hospitals and elderly homes. They have served the immigrant in a new land both in Germany where they started and here where they have been planted since crossing the sea. They build wells in Africa. They have had a presence in China and the east. And in all those places and to this day, these sisters in Christ have served tirelessly and selflessly those in need of healing and resting and learning. Those with gifts of administration have led the institutions they built.

Mt St Francis b&w of SAC GRandma and Mom Mt St Francis photo redone with us

We went to a now-closed church in Dubuque, Saint Mary’s, which once had an active school, a convent for the sisters and of course, the church. In hand I carried an old black and white photo taken in 1962. There is Aunt Carolyn in her pre-Vatican II habit, my mom Jeanne (holding the hand of an unseen sibling that I believe is Susan) and their mom Bea, my grandmother. They are standing on the playground between the convent and the church. We decided to recreate the photo in the same spot (no more fence or playground equipment) with the same house in the background as the 1962 picture. As we were trying to figure out how to take it, a young woman came up to see what we were doing. It turns out she is a resident in the old convent, now known as Maria House. The building that once housed the sisters like my aunt, is now a home for women coming out of the prison of addiction. This woman was eager to tell us her story. Caught in the cycle of alcoholism by parents of brokenness, she has not had custody of her children for years. But with the help of this project of the Franciscans, she is clean and sober and about to get her children on a five-day-per-week basis. And then she will transition into the new apartments next door: the former school where Aunt Carolyn spent her early years teaching.

We saw how resourceful this group of nuns has been in the years since they began these ministries. A hospital built in the 1940s is now an apartment building. Saint Mary’s Church is being turned into a neighborhood center for small offices and gatherings. The school will be a longer-term residence for those women being freed from the bondage of addiction. These women who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, have lived into those vows by pouring into the lives of others.

We couldn’t go anywhere in Dubuque without someone coming up to Aunt Carolyn to say hello. Either she taught them as children in school or preschool or daycare, or had cared for their aging parents at the Stonehill facility where they lived or rehabbed. They all knew her. And I imagine that other sisters are known in the community in the same way.

Mt St Francis last supperWe closed our visit with a short trip to the Clare House dining room of Mount Saint Francis. In this new long-term residence for the elderly and infirm sisters, there is a beautiful depiction of the last supper done in intarsia by a very talented sister-artist. In this three-dimensional picture of the table of community we find Jesus and his apostles. Not just the ones you know were there like John and Peter, but others whose lives speak to the history and tradition of Francis and Clare, those who served and advocated for the poor and unheard. There is Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. There is Oscar Romero. And there is Mother Xaveria Termehr. She is seated at the table with Jesus, and even this evening her daughters will be gathered to pray before they share their common table. A tradition that continues under the eyes of a community and communion of saints.

I claim as my own now their sense of historical identity, even as their order now diminishes in size. Through my Aunt Carolyn I will carry the stories she shared with us in those precious hours. As I read the history books she left with me and read the stories of the saints in my theology class, I will be sustained and encouraged by the culture of this way of life. The religious orders may not look in the future like they looked in the past, but as long as I – we – remember, their traditions will carry on.

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

Theology Classmates

My foray into higher education at Creighton University has kept me hopping over the last two months. But I made it through to spring break! No, I am not traveling to Myrtle Beach or South Beach or any other beach with the younger folks in my class. I am taking a few minutes to write something for this blog which has taken a back seat to writing for classes. I have written reflections on assigned movies, a letter about St. Ignatius and the Society of Jesus, mid-term essays, final essays and two research papers. It is hard to adjust my writing style to one that is more academic, but I am giving it my best shot!

THL110 class on final nightOne of my classes ended this past Monday as the seven of us in Theology 110 took our final. This group of new friends were a great reintroduction to university life. For seven Monday nights we met for four hours per class and our wonderful teacher, Mr. Mueting, fed us 2,000 plus years of theology. (That is about 300 years per week but one week we covered 800!) Every week he would bring us snacks to carry us through the dinner hour. Last Monday before we sat down to take our final exam we had a potluck dinner to celebrate. We took our picture to mark the end of this required class for all students at Creighton. There we are, Nancy and I, the two fifty-somethings; Heidi, mother of eight and studying creative writing; Manny who works for a bank and has three children; Kat the social worker who brought her perspective about adolescents searching for their identities; Brisa from Mexico whose bright purple socks made us smile; and Kit, a former EMT from Hawaii who is studying to be a nurse. Life in this class was never dull especially when Mr. Mueting, a dramaturge at heart and a former contestant on Jeopardy, stood at the front and opened the fire hydrant and poured out his extensive knowledge of theology.

It has been a marvelous two months.

Along with this class I have been taking another class in a more traditional format: 30 students (all 20 or 21, except for me!) led by a tenured professor whose doctorate in theology is on full throttle for each Monday and Wednesday class. This class has been such a gift as I have heard affirmation about what it means to love God and love your neighbor and that those two things are in tandem and should not and cannot be separated!

In both of these classes I have had good opportunities to share about the church I have been privileged to stand with in the Middle East and to bring a perspective that others might not be aware of. Even as I have been taught, I have tried to teach.

With all of these good people who share this time in history with me, I have learned about the saints who have handed down this faith to us, and it is these people I am most grateful to. Listen to their voices:

  • Disasters teach us humility. – Anselm of Canterbury
  • Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. – Thomas Aquinas
  • What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. – Saint Augustine
  • Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. – Saint Augustine
  • Occupy yourself in beholding and bewailing your own imperfections rather than contemplating the imperfections of others. – Saint Ignatius
  • I wish not merely to be called Christian, but also to be Christian. -Saint Ignatius
  • Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God’s service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest. – Saint Ignatius
  • Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. – St Catherine of Siena
  • You are rewarded not according to your work or your time, but according to the measure of your love. – St Catherine of Siena
  • Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is right and it is duty. – Oscar Romero
  • If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted onto Christ’s life, his cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure. – Oscar Romero
  • There are not two categories of people. There are not some who were born to have everything and leave others with nothing and a majority that has nothing and can’t enjoy the happiness that God has created for all. God wants a Christian society, one in which we share the good things that God has given for all of us. – Oscar Romero
  • “he Lord God, in this plan, gave us a material world, like this material bread and this material cup which we lift up in offering to Christ the Lord. It is a material world for everyone, without borders. This what Genesis tells us. It is not something I make up. – Rutilio Grande

I think that there is song worth singing in those quotes, and a life worth living. And if we who call upon the name of the Lord could join that choir and craft our lives to the lyrics of that song, like St. Catherine said, we would set the world on fire.