This past Sunday marked 40 days since the news broke about the Pennsylvania grand jury report. 40 days of wandering in my own personal desert, trying to find the right words, but mostly doing what I do best, which is unintentionally compartmentalize long enough for it to callous over or turn into a dull ache that could be easily ignored or forgotten. (Not great, I know.)
The day the report was released, I was reeling. I remember reaching out to friends, wanting to be around other people who I knew would also be grieving, angry, whose hearts would be broken by the suffering of so many who had been sexually abused by priests. I needed to process, to cry and vent, but it was all too much.
The next day, with minimal planning and forethought, I weeded my entire (albeit small) backyard for the first time since moving to our house 5 years ago (did I mention I hate gardening?). I remember walking out that morning, covered in bug spray, the humidity already making my clothes stick to my skin, and realizing there was a weed that had been growing long enough that it was really a small tree. And so, completely overwhelmed, I chose a back corner of the yard and just started yanking on these God-forsaken weeds.
At first, there was an overriding sense of disbelief and annoyance that we had let it get this bad. But as I knelt there, uprooting the invaders in my garden and unceremoniously flinging them into an ever-growing pile, I felt myself settle into a still quietness. And with each motion, I gave my thoughts space to untangle and breathe.
“Mom, do you know why we have to weed?” I recalled my 5 year-old’s question the last time we worked on the front yard. Without waiting for me to answer, she wisely tells me, “If the weeds stay, they’ll steal the water from the real plants.”
I thought of my daughters who were inside the cool, air-conditioned house watching cartoons with their dad, soaking up the last few days of their summer vacation.
I thought of all the children who had been robbed of their childhood, of the mothers and fathers whose pain I cannot begin to imagine.
How did we let it get this bad?
I paused to survey my progress and recalled a lectionary reading from earlier in the summer that had stayed with me:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture—oracle of the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them and bring them back to their folds; there they shall be fruitful and multiply.
I will raise up shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear or be terrified; none shall be missing—oracle of the LORD (Jeremiah 23:1-4).
I imagined the scattered sheep, fearful and terrified, and the shepherd setting out to look for them.
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14-16).
Even the sheep who have been driven away or have wandered outside the fold know and recognize the Shepherd’s voice. Jesus leads them also.
What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
Jesus came “to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10).
I feel like one of those wandering sheep, waiting to see or hear something that sounds like home. And as much as being Catholic has been a core part of my identity, as much as I have always loved the richness and profound depth of liturgy, there is now a dull ache and sadness, a subtle, creeping cynicism, when I’m at Mass.
Everything I learned over the years about the Eucharist — and all its implications — began to really sink in. That each time we say “Amen” to the Body of Christ, not only do we say Amen to Christ the Head, but to Christ and his members. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we deepen our bond, the bond first formed at Baptism, with Christ and all the members of the Body of Christ. Who exactly am I saying Amen to? What is being required of me, with every Amen, with every Yes I say to the Body of Christ?*
As I wrestle with all of this, there is an image that continues to come up in prayer, and it stems from this passage in Mark:
He said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29).
The image is of me yelling at my seeds to grow (and yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds). It’s of me trying, by sheer will power, to skip past this time of grief and blindly searching in the dark for a lightswitch.
I have always been an impatient person, wanting things to happen as quickly and efficiently as possible. And so, even in times of pain and woundedness, my coping mechanism is to cut to the chase and get to the root of the problem. I want to know how to help, how to be part of the solution, how to begin the process of healing and changing institutions and unjust structures. I want to do something and not feel so helpless.
And yet, as Greg Boyle writes in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, “Ours is a God who waits. Who are we not to? It takes what it takes for the great turnaround. Wait for it.” He echoes Teilhard de Chardin: “we must ‘trust in the slow work of God.’”
I can’t help but be reminded of a reflection that I wrote last year for Holy Saturday, where I reflect on God’s waiting room and liminal space, those “special times in our lives when our normal situation is so uprooted so that it is possible precisely to plant new roots and take up life in a whole new way. That’s usually brought about by a major crisis, one that shakes us in the very roots of our being” (source). The key, when we recognize that we are in the midst of one of those sacred in-between times, is not to rush past it, and to be willing to hold and sit with all the fear and anxiety and ambiguity that comes with not knowing what’s going to happen next.
I have slowly come to the realization that for me, this may be one of those times.
And so I wait on God. Not the passive waiting of someone twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do, but with the expectant hope of so many others who have come before me — of Mama Mary awaiting the birth of her son Jesus, of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary facing the tomb, of the gardener who, while she may not know how, continues to water and till the soil waiting for her seeds to grow.
As I wait, I heed the words of a child and pull up the weeds from the garden of my soul that are stealing water from that which God wants to grow within me:
I pray for the Spirit’s wisdom to help me discern God’s voice so I might recognize and pull up false beliefs, fears, and worries and other joy-stealers that have been sown by the Enemy.
I draw from the well of wisdom that I’ve gained during times of consolation — from spiritual friendships, and Scripture study, old notes scribbled from times of retreat and Examens past — and use that to water my parched soul.
I attempt to practice the discipline that marks Christian discipleship, the discipline of showing up every day in prayer in order to:
…unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket. It is like raking away the leaves that cover the pathways in the garden of our soul. Discipline enables the revelation of God’s divine Spirit in us…to hear God’s call and allow that call to guide our actions in order to prevent ourselves from remaining or becoming spiritually deaf (Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, 88).
I fight to stay present and savor my everyday moments with my loved ones, to delight in the joyful insanity of my children and revel in the steadfastness of my husband, recognizing that the God I seek is present in those who are right in front of me.
I confess that I have always been afraid that the words I write are inadequate, that I will somehow fall short of whatever it is that God is asking of me. But today, I offer up my writing as a prayer for the Body of Christ, in all its brokenness. I end with the words I wrote in the wake of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. May they be a source of hope for you today, no matter where you are on your journey:
The other day, the verse from Ezekiel about dry bones jumped off the page in my morning prayer (see Ezekiel 37:1-14). It is easy for us to look at the situation we are in, where fear and violence dominate the news, where death and suffering seem to reign, it is easy for us to look around and see what Ezekiel saw — a valley of dry bones.
I believe the same words that God spoke to Ezekiel are the same words that God speaks to each of us now:
Prophesy over these bones, and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life.
I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put breath into you so you may come to life.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 37:4-6).
May we be transformed in our waiting, as we hope in the Lord who renews our strength. May we remain awake and alert, so that we might be ready to act whenever God calls.
*One of my favorite quotes from Augustine: “If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to what the apostle Paul says to the faithful: ‘You are Christ’s own body, his members’; thus, it is your own mystery which is placed on the Lord’s table. It is your own mystery that you receive. At communion, the priest says: ‘The body of Christ,’ and you reply ‘Amen.’ When you say ‘Amen,’ you are saying yes to what you are.”
Good post. So sorry you went through this, your faith is deep. God loves you and has you.
Thank you for your words — it means more than you know.
Grateful for your reflection Jessica — I too have been grappling with what to do in the wake of the Catholic Church’s failings and (and violence). I find grace in the image here of gardening — of gardening with God, even, to toil and to wait — to also turn to the Word for strength and comfort. Thank you for this thoughtful post!
Thank you for taking the time to read. I garden with you, too.
Thank you for making me pause……consider…….reflect.
Grateful for your friendship.
Thank you for your thoughtful words. They are far from inadequate, but full of wisdom. I have just finished reading the book of essays by the religious women in the LCWR leadership (However Long the Night…) that describes how the Sisters prepared themselves, their organization and their congregations for the traumatic time that was the Vatican Visitation and CDF inquisition. They, too, had to resist the temptation to jump and respond immediately, at times of betrayal and anger, but to take time in contemplative prayer, both personal and communal, to come to consensus about what to do. What is clear to me is that many in the hierarchy do not have the spiritual maturity to get us out of the problems they have created. I hope that people like you do come to a point where you can contribute your experiences and wisdom.
Thanks so much, Juliana. Grateful to have the example of the Sisters and so many others like them whose roots run deep in their love of Christ.
Thank you Juliana. I like your analogy with the LCWR very much.
Thank you for this Jessica. I think we are are all called to be part of the solution to this cancer in the Church (actually its a cancer in all of society), and you are doing that.
We had a garden which we always struggled to weed for many years. The weeds grew knee high. Eventually we pulled them out as best we could and covered them with weedmat and stones. A few weeds still come up around the edges but a kettle of boiling water deals with those. I think it take time to come to the point we we are able to make the radical changes that will be necessary to deal with this crisis. God will bring that to fruition.
Yes, this is a painful process. But is is part of God’s work to purify and reform the Church.
what a beautiful post
I’m grateful for this post. I’m not Catholic, but I’m glad to have you as a sister in the faith.