Waiting for Test Results (and Marshmallows)

You know that feeling of waiting for something?  Think about when you or a loved one was waiting to find out how someone did on an SAT, a blood test or the Bar Exam. It can be awful, can’t it?  In that strange time span of hours, weeks or months, you wonder what has happened. The funny thing is that the facts and reality are already there and have been in place for some amount of time. The test is over, finito, done.  It is like celebrating your 50th birthday. Friend, at your 50th birthday party, you’ve already just spent a year working toward being 50!

49 year olds may want to take a short break here while they realize they are already in their 50th year.

In the case of waiting to hear the results of something, what you are waiting for is the information to be interpreted and shared with you. In the case of medical test results, The Funny Business is already at work, networking, getting business cards and making itself known (to your cells, organs, bloodstream or what have you). Or, maybe The Funny Business is chilling and laying or low or maybe has “left the building” altogether. You are among the last to know as the lab techs who tested it, P.A. who interpreted it and nurse who calls you all know these facts before you do. If they get them too close to 4:55pm and traffic can be nuts outside their building, forget about it, you’re not finding out until tomorrow.

Waiting in times like this can be hard, even for people of faith. When we claim to be people of faith, we like to toss about keywords like trust and hope.  We can whip out a ttgreeting card to a troubled friend quicker than you can say “where are the stamps, honey?” We can post memes on Facebook with the cheesiest platitudes that we wouldn’t dare use in real life but there’s a kitten and it sounds positive and our friend (or facebook friend) is hurting so we go for it. The hard part about being a person of faith is when you actually have to live it out and the rubber meets the road. The hardest part of chastity is when you encounter someone and have actually fallen head over heels in love with them. The hardest part of serving the poor is when there’s one right in front of you and she annoys you, makes bad decisions, approaches you the wrong way or is rude to you. These ideas of trust and hope (and everything else we claim to hold dear) have to be real to us in these absolutely real moments of our lives otherwise, we are just poking our sticks in the fire without taking the risk of putting a marshmallow on one. Yeah, most marshmallows come ttout burnt and taste utterly disgusting but if we’re too afraid of how they might come out to risk it, we will just spend the evening fruitlessly poking at coals and yes, maybe accepting a square off the Hershey’s bar and a few squares of Graham crackers but WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? Those cold, timid things (cold squares of chocolate and graham crackerness) are no match for the sugary goodness of a hot, dangerous, messy s’more. Let’s back up here. The point is that real life happens sometimes, even when it seems like we are doing all the right things and living the right way and when these moments hit us, we get to see for ourselves how much we believe in these otherwise transcendent, elusive concepts like faith and trust and hope. If you failed the driver’s test, then what? You’ll schedule another 4 hour day at the DMV to go again. If you find out you failed the Bar Exam, then what? You’ll sell all your law school books on ebay and do what you always wanted to do-go on walkabout for a year ( I’m guessing here). If you fail the blood test, then what? Well, first come the stages of grief, each coupled with a microbrew of your choice, and with the awesome part where you find out what faith, hope and trust mean when its time for you to actually rely on them.

What does this have to do with St. Clare of Assisi?

St. Clare’s big thing is that she insisted on living in a way that meant her monastery did not have the usual failsafe measures in place. She insisted on living out poverty not for its own sake but because it meant relying on God to see them through. Of course, one of the ways God works is by moving the hearts of regular people like you and me to give people like St. Clare and her sisters food, blankets and elbow grease when the roof starts to leak. She didn’t set up a fund with a cool logo, she didn’t accept dowries from those who joined her and she insisted that the monastery have only enough land to grow food for themselves rather than owning lots of land and becoming landladies to the local people who would then farm the land. Her mettle was tested every day and she wanted it that way. Oh, mettle, that’s a cool word. Here are some synonyms: spirit, fortitude, strength of character, moral fiber, steel, determination, resolve, resolution, backbone, grit, true grit, courage, courageousness, bravery, valor, fearlessness, daring and spunk. If you’re afraid of your marshmallow turning out bad and that keeps you from roasting one, you’re missing your spunk, kid. Get it back.

Interview with Julie McElmurry

Hi. I got to talk about my commitment to promoting year of service/gap year programs in a recent interview with Catholic Volunteer Network.

A conversation with Julie McElmurry

Living & Serving in the Way of St. Francis, is a new collection of stories and reflections from volunteers who have served with Franciscan Volunteer Network programs. Julie McElmurry, Director of Franciscan Passages (and former volunteer) served as the editor for this book. We had a conversation with her about the project. 
Photo courtesy Anna Golladay
CVN: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Julie: The Franciscan Service Network came up with the idea to collect reflections from volunteers of their member programs.
CVN: What is the format for the book?
Julie: The “outline” for the book is the writing of St. Francis called his Testament. Franciscan scholar Jean-Francois Godet-Calogeras, PhD generously lent his support to the book by allowing use of his never before published translation of the Testament. Forty themes were found in the Testament (by me, for this project) and assigned to forty volunteers and alumni of FSN programs, selected by FSN Directors…

A Good Friend is Dying

A good friend is dying.
She has been in the hospitals and rehabs for seven months.
I went to see her about a month into this journey. She was coming out of what I will call a coma but I have advanced degrees in things like history and a high school education in biology so what do I know. My brother took me to see her. She’s 7 hours from where I live and I knew I’d need some help getting to her. I prayed and asked God to provide a way for me. Quickly, a friendtr from our Wake Forest days contacted me and invited me to stay with her and her awesome husband and daughter in MD for the night. My brother equally quickly offered to help me get up there. He drove 2 hours from his home to pick me up then the rest of the way so I could see her. I’m so grateful for him and his fiancé and enjoyed our conversations on the way up and back home. My friend was not able to speak when I saw her in September but I could see that she was there. I could see it in her eyes. It was a relatively short visit. I think I went in two or three times over the course of an afternoon and got to visit with the family in the waiting room in the meantime.
Since that time, the family has given regular updates through CaringBridge.com which is a great service to those with ill loved ones. Updates are posted there and readers can respond with messages for all to see. It saves a family from having the same conversation 10 times and the message getting lost as it is translated from one person to the next. Of course, I read these as soon as I see that there’s an update (my phone tells me). Each one since September has been in the same, steady (though slow) direction of continuous improvement for her. There’s a photo of her outside amid the flowers in the hospital garden, there’s a tale of a birthday party in the room and a Christmas party in the room (with smuggled-in food) and photos of her with a walker, a breathing apparatus, scissors, and smiles. Her husband, son and daughter wrote the various updates. I tried to do my part by sending cards (once a week when I was on a roll). I wrote a five page letter at Christmas time explaining my disdain for two great blasphemers: Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell, both of whom have done a major disservice to humanity by trying to capture the uncapturable. I followed up with a report of our Christmas which was a wonderful event filled with good food and good friends around long tables outside in the backyard (the temperature was in the 80s), puzzles for the introverts and cute comments from our 4 year old little buddy.
I saw my friend again last week. I had to go to DC for a morning which involved a peacemaking and reconciliation experience with some people I’d gone through mediation with about 10 months ago. I left there relieved that our conflict could be put to rest and that there is a future for some of us to do good together in the future. The timing worked out and the location of this meeting worked out so that Fr. J, my colleague of 11 years at Wake Forest, picked me up on his way out to see our mutual friend in the hospital. I got to spend time in the waiting room with the family and got to know one particular person whom I hadn’t met yet. I enjoyed seeing photos of my friend’s grandson who, it turns out, is super cute. I was able to watch a few videos as well and see that he is a smiley, happy kid with great parents. That was lovely. When it was time to go in to see my friend, a family member told me that at the Christmas party, they skyped in another family member who trwas on the other side of the world. He surprised them all by donning the same blue smock and gloves required of ICU visitors. He was in a hotel room on the other side of the world wearing that outfit while skyping into the party in her room where everyone there was wearing the same outfit. Say what you will, I think the internet is a real force for good in this world.After some time in the waiting room, it was okay to go visit her.  I was in the room with two family members and Fr. J. Nobody sat in the chair next to her bed so I sat there. I was able to place my hand atop hers with the sheet separating it. On the way up, I’d read a hospice website about visiting a dying loved one. Sure, as a campus minister, I’ve made plenty of hospital visits & coached plenty of students on decorum and customs in these settings but it was helpful to read stuff that assured me it was fine to touch her as I did. Also, my mom reminded me on the phone that the hearing is the last to go so I spent our time rehashing some funny stories and telling her about the peacemaking meeting I had just come from. My friend and I always parted with a promise of owing the other a red hot dog from a gas station (origin unknown) so I mentioned that to her and to the people in the room with me. She was unconscious and machines were doing the kind of work for her body that my own organs do in my own body. I teared up but did not get hysterical. I had a good cry a few days before when I learned she was actively dying. I know there are many more cries in the queue. I didn’t give some grandiose goodbye (the hospice website suggested not to do that) but I did promise her a red hot dog. We took off our blue smocks and gloves and said goodbye to her family members who stayed inside with her (and to trher). I spent way too long at the ICU exit trying to figure out where the “red button” was that I was supposed to push to get the door to release. I asked them through the curtain and they told me where it was.
Now, I am back at home. Reading CaringBridge.com updates and well wishes from friends. I just wrote a 5 page letter to one of the family members and stuck in in my mailbox before coming to my office. I called a mutual friend yesterday and told her a little about my visit there. My friend who is dying is someone who has dedicated HER ENTIRE LIFE to serving the poor. In the town where she is from, there are 1000s of people with AIDS, poor people, immigrant people and others who have a better life b/c of what she has done to serve them and look out for them. She worked her tukus off finding donors and making sure money got to recipients. She led the way when it came to the church welcoming wave after wave of immigrants. She took great delight as an earlier wave of immigrants (Spanish speaking) came forward to reach out to the newest wave (Kareni-speaking). I can’t even list here all the things I KNOW she has done for other people. And I only met her in 1999. In fact, when I first moved to that town, Fr. J introduced me to her that very same day. She took me around to all the poor areas (housing projects, soup kitchens, etc.) as I had just come from working at a homeless shelter and was about to start as a campus minister at Wake Forest (a pretty well-off school) and she wanted me to feel “at home” there. It is immature but I look around and hear about people who are hateful and nasty and I wonder why we have to be stuck with those fools around while someone like this person has to go too soon. It is the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. As Christians, we celebrate what death means to us and what comes next for us. I’ll be ready to revel in that soon enough but for now I’m thinking all of this just kind of stinks. As someone who is left here on this earth for another 1-60 years or so, I’m going to miss her a lot. I’m editing a documentary I’ve put together about women religious (nuns) who have served the poor and I’m planning to dedicate my work on this project to my dying friend

Pray for Her

and her husband, lay people who have shown me and many others what it means to serve the poor. Please wait with me as my friend is dying. Pray for her and for her family and friends.

Thoughts from a 40,000-person Catholic Conference

I just spent 2.5 days at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress which is the biggest event of its type in the US. There are 100s of speakers, musicians, Masses in Indonesian, Spanish, Vietnamese and more, over 45,000 in attendance (like me), 250 vendors and three people with placards outside telling us we are all going to hell. I’d like to share a few thoughts as I wait at my gate at LAX, wondering if TMZ’s photogs are looking for me. I’m going to talk about a common theme I heard in the talks I attended, about 3 strange things I saw for sale and about some cool moments I had of encountering new and old friends.

Something I heard Over and Over

Be Creative, Stop Stalling, Stop being Afraid and Don’t Listen to Those Who Think You Have No Right to Create

tr3This is a common theme I heard a lot this weekend. I think it is something I needed to hear. At the film showcase, I was asked if I am a filmmaker. After several shy attempts to apologize and say no, not really, some legit filmmakers (I mean like Hollywood Catholic legit) told me to own it. Well, I am making a documentary about women religious who have served the poor.I’ve interviewed almost 20 people in FL, PA and HI. This week I’ll be editing it from morning until night to get a draft ready to show next week. Yeah, you know what, I am making a film. I’m owning that. I am doing it. Same goes with writing. Yeah, I do write a blog. Yeah, I did write the 80 questions in a book of reflections that was published last year so, heck, I’m going to own that too. There are those who have tried to pull me down and did not want me to do my thing from writing to talking about St. Francis to putting together a film. They can do their own thing, they can own their own creativity and start making stuff. I’m owning mine.

3 Strange Things I saw for Sale at the L.A. Religious Education Congress

  1. Beer Koozies with their logo. What a delightfully frivolous souvenir! And, it owns that we are beer drinkers and we like our beer the American way-cold. Being Catholic and American has never fit together so well. I wish now I’d bought one.tr1
  2. Candle Dispenser. You’ve seen the new drink machines that use a robotic arm to deliver goods to you? Well, here’s  a solution for churches which sell a LOT of candles. I was pleased to see this invention and imagined taking it back in time to the great shrines of Europe in the middle ages. People would go nuts for it!
  3. Dolls wearing religious habits. Okay, I’m just going to be blunt. This is weird. They sell them at the Eucharistic Congress in my own Diocese, too. Who buys these? Does the buyer’s remorse kick in, like, immediately? These are weird and creepy.

People from my Past I ran Intotr2

I ran into a friar I’d met in NY about 4 years ago, a nun I’d met in the Marshall Islands about 13 years ago, a recruiter for a grad school who I met 2 years ago, a publisher who told me he’d deliver a copy of the book I edited to Richard Rohr today (!), reps from my old grad school at Fordham, a guy who grows bees & makes candles from their wax, someone from Tonga (!), and a Californian who wants to retire in NC. I met a hundred others, but, you get the idea.

I’ll be Back!

I will def. be returning to the LA Congress.  Speakers and Masses were uplifting and challenging, as an independent, lay woman in ministry, it was a balm to my soul to meet 100s of other lay people who are each doing their small part in the world and I loved the Hawai’ian folks I shared a house with thanks to my Franciscan pal Sister Cheryl Wint. It was an A+ event. I even got to share an airport shuttle with a Catholic Celebrity who wrote  and led the music for the Black Culture Mass! His name is W. Clifford Petty and he is a legend. Heck, he told me on the ride to the airport that Gladys Knight invited him to the grand opening of her Atlanta restaurant! This was after I suggested we rewrite the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” for his day today, calling it, “Mid-day Flight to Alabama”… Uh oh, I gotta run, TMZ spotted me…



On expecting Certain people to be guilty

My brother owns a theater company. He sends out pairs of actors all over the country to perform in plays based on literature and historical events. They wear uniforms with the company logo. They drive the company vans which are registered to his company in NC. They carry around company Rubbermaid bins, you know the type, but in this case they are not filled with your old high school year books and winter clothes but props and costumes, wigs and puppets. These folks are actors, some with years of experience, some right out of college. Acting is a tough career, like a lot of artistic endeavors. His actors come from Broadway sometimes and they go to Broadway sometimes. You work gig to gig. You do it because you love acting. He pays well above what his competitors pay their actors and it is in fact a living wage. He’s a good, ethical man, my brother.

trTwo nights ago, he got a call. His actors were traveling through a town in NC when they got pulled over by the cops. Broken taillight, they said. (The next day a mechanic assured them the taillights were a-okay). They were questioned. When the cops said “it didn’t add up” (theater people traveling through their small county on their way to do theater stuff), they called for back up. More cops came. These are theater majors. The cops were looking for something to nail them on. They searched through smelly wigs (sorry, bro), costumes, sets, ancient hats, vests and frilly dresses. They wondered aloud where the drugs were. You know how on a long ride as the passenger, you like to kick off your shoes? Well, so do some actors apparently. Its a pretty normal thing to do. That means that when you are told to get out of the vehicle by a cop and its night time and you are Black, you cannot put your shoes on because it feels like you are going to get shot. This actress was thus barefoot, hands against the vehicle alongside her male colleague while three cops dug around their sweaty costumes trying to piece together the big mystery of how there are a.)actors b.)in a van c.)traveling through their town. Of course, there was nothing. These are professional actors. They had places to go and things to do. They were probably ready to hit the sack at that night’s hotel, call their friends back home and call it a night.  Clues such as their uniforms or pay stubs or the paperwork regarding that day’s shows and tomorrow’s shows were inadmissible evidence at that point.  They wanted to call the (White) owner of the company which employed them but he was an inadmissible witness.

The actors were shaken up by the time they called my brother and they were back on the road with their nothing-wrong-with-it taillight.  He was shaken too. The shows they are touring with right now are about the Civil Rights movement. The next day they hit the road again and performed the shows again. The show must go on, as they say.  My brother has said he’s going to do something about this.

Do you expect Black people to be guilty? I have anecdotal evidence of having been in situations, one with White associates and one with Black associates and I can tell you first hand that people look at the Black people and just expect that they are up to something or that they are guilty.  Why do they/you/we/I do that?

What does this have to do with St. Francis?

St. Francis stepped across the lines that divided people (haves from the have nots, Christians from the Muslims) and just sat down to eat with people, to have conversations with people. If you are reading this and you are White, answer me this: do you believe in integration? If so, when was the last time *you* integrated someplace?

A Documentary in 40 Days (share your story)!

It all started with an idea that had been percolating for awhile. Then came the news about a mini grant from National Catholic Sisters Week. Next thing I knew, I was awarded the grant to put together a documentary which is a collection of stories (small, medium and large) from a wide variety of people across the country. The stories tell about Catholic religious sisters and nuns who have served the poor. Let’s talk. I want to hear your story!

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, PTL, Heritage USA and St. Francis of Assisi

I went to (the formerly named) Heritage USA today. If you were sober and

The Original Playas: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker

awake in the late 1980s, you’ll remember the huge scandal involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They were popular televangelists who raked in millions of dollars per year with their tv channel. The money, it seems, came mostly from elderly retired people on fixed incomes who watched the channel incessantly, parting with their money as the smiling faces of Jim and Tammy Faye assured them it was all for the Lord. Well, naturally, when you have that much money coming in, surely the Lord doesn’t need it all and it would be good to spend it on some little treats now and again (oh, and as hush money over a sexual assault)(oh, and on pyramid schemes).


I mean, doesn’t that just look like as much fun as the Charlotte Funny Bus?

Heritage USA was a sprawling piece of land which they wanted to be known as the Christian Disney World. They had 6 million (!) visitors to the park each year. The park included a water park, mini-golf and, if you’re into what my untrained eye identified as tacky gingerbread style architecture a “fancy” hotel and conference center. I grew up one of very few families of Catholics in the mountains of North Carolina (just 3 hours

Digital Camera Exif JPEG
Water park which, as it turns out, probably would have permitted Catholics.

away) so when my parents took us on a drive-by of Heritage USA back in the 80s, I think they got out of paying for water park tickets by telling us they didn’t allow Catholics there. Lol. Good one, mom. Anyhow, as far as I know, we escaped unrobbed by the Bakkers which was a rare feat in those days. You may remember stories of their air conditioned dog house, six homes, and enough gold plated fixtures to inspire the Enron thieves years later. Self-identifying Christians of all stripes flocked to this Mecca of Tacky and found many opportunities to spend their money while there.
The place had fallen into ruin over the decades and today is a popular place for urban explorers to check out. Most of what was there was demolished, but there is plenty, I mean plenty of decay to be seen if you’re into that (and what person with post-modern tastes doesn’t like to see a little decaying civilization once in a while?) was bought by a group of people who believe their main guy is a prophet (oh, brother) and feature such activities as dream interpretation (I’m sure everyone volunteering for this squad has a PhD in Jungian psychology) and a prophecy group. I guess they figure the prophecy group volunteers are right as long as they don’t contradict their main prophet. There is a connection between them and the original Jim Bakker. (In summary, Bakker told this prophet guy the buildings and land would all be his one day. I’m too bored by their antics to explain more.)
128098089_displayI married into a family which has some curious Heritage USA connections. My adorable husband went to the high school which was the remnant of the one founded by Jim and Tammy Faye. He went there post-scandal so the population had dwindled to just 12 per grade. He often brags that he graduated in the top 12 of his graduating class. Oh, and he played three sports (everyone had to).
The family  connection to Heritage USA I’m most proud of his trathe fine work of his uncle who was a U.S. Marshall. This scam-machine of deception called PTL (Praise the Lord) Ministry was shown to the world by a Charlotte Observer reporter who won a Pulitzer for his fine work. The veil was lifted and it turns out some very un-Christian shenanigans were going on under the gold-painted roof and fake skies (see photo) of “Main Street, USA.” These include affairs and I don’t just mean business affairs, sexual assaults and lots and lots of money being bilked from people. They sold off shares for $1000 apiece which enabled “donors” to spend 1 weekend per year for all eternity at Heritage USA. Guess what? Those donors were mostly elderly people with little money as it is. Well, problem is they sold more shares than units and didn’t even finish most of the building projects. Oh, but about my husband’s uncle: he served as a U.S. 1410800184404_wps_45_u_s_marshals_escort_formeMarshall and is the one most prominent in the photos hauling ole Jim Bakker’s thieving bottom on the perp walk after his arrest. He’s a classy guy, this uncle, so he gave his coat to cover the ‘cuffs on this once-hailed, now-found-out-thief (who, by the way is from Michigan, not North Carolina). That really was a classy thing to do-gracious even. I was invited years ago  to gaze upon various items related to this momentous arrest and was thrilled to my core by them!
As I walked around this now-refurbished building which houses the faux Main Street, I snapped photos, felt indignant about the whole ripping-old-people-off thing and wondered about the Bakkers’ own journeys through grief and rebuilding and coming to terms with what they got caught doing. Mr. traBakker admitted he was wrong, even wrote a book with the sing-song title I was Wrong and said in a TV interview shortly after being released from prison that, upon further reflection, he realized that Jesus didn’t really have too much good stuff to say about money grubbing after all. Granted, he said this while in a lovely home in Malibu listening to the waves crash under  a particularly spectacular sunset (I’m guessing here), which makes the whole living simply and eschewing money grubbing thing a lot easier to stomach, but still, it is a step in the right direction.

What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?

One of many never-finished buildings from which huge chunks of bricks regularly fall into the parking lot below.

The story goes that Francis was spoken to by the Lord. “Go, rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin.” Well, certainly the hot mess of money and makeup that was PTL and the Bakkers fell into ruin, face first, taking plenty of prisoners with it. (A jury of my fellow North Carolinian decided the people who were bilked out of that $1000 time share deal would not be reimbursed by the PTL, which is sad and unjust.)

Maybe after having fallen into ruin, certain entities and people have to go through a purification  to come out cleaner on the other side. I’m not thoughtful enough to come with ways that this actually is a story of redemption. I see that Jim Bakker  is doing his old shtick, preaching on TV for money, but I mean, come on, I have to assume he’s going about this the right way this time. I will say that it’s a good thing that empire of tacky fell into ruin in the first place before more people were victimized by them. Sometimes stuff falls into ruin and that’s just the way it has to be. I guess our hope as Christinans is that the falling into ruin part is not the whole of the story, but is the beginning of a new story, one which moves beyond ruin into something even better than what was there originally.

A Malibu Sunset…this oughta help.

Resentment is like a Kidney Stone

I had been having a hard time with _______ for a while. Toward the end of my hour long prayer shift at the chapel this morning, I finally relented and decided to “deal with it.”
I sat there and thought about the hard time I’d had with _______. I wondetra1red why the slightest interaction with _______ bothered me and why I took umbrage at ______ remarks. This really had been a mystery to me for quite some time. As I sat there, finally willing to bring this mystery to God in prayer, it occurred to me that it is because of resentment.

I’ve talked about resentment a-plenty in retreat settings. Heck, I could give a pretty good talk on it right this instant if you called me (5 minute, 10 minute and 20 minute options). I can even recommend to you a great song that addresses it and helps you see that forgiving another does not require that they act first (apologize) but that it is its own thing that frees you, who have unknowingly been its prisoner. I’m just showing off now. Back to my story…

The first line of St. Francis’ “Prayer before the Crucifix” pleads that God will “Enlighten the darkness of my heart.” As I sat there, newly aware of this resentment, I prayed/thought about that line.
The metaphor for resentment that came to me this morning involves [last chance to turn back and go to another blog post] kidney stones. tra1Resentment is like a kidney stone. What was I really asking when I asked God to “Enlighten the darkness of my heart”? I began to picture this resentment toward _____ as something like a kidney stone. I saw it as a calcified, mummified, gray stone. It doesn’t make its home in my kidney, but in my heart. It occurred to me that resentment is not the same as brand new, fresh hurt and anger, which is a living, breathing thing. Resentment is this unprocessed, un-dealt-with mass of old hurt and anger.
By asking God to “Enlighten the darkness of my heart”, I let all the spot lights, motion detector lights, laser beams and compact tra1fluorescents bathe the inside of my heart with light, even to bathe this stony thing with light. There it sat. I could see it as plain as day. It had been there for a long time. I thought it was my little secret which I could keep hidden. Well, these things don’t remain completely hidden since we don’t actually control them. It is obvious to others there’s something there that has not been dealt with. Now that it was exposed, for me to see and acknowledge and recognize, I felt something like relief. The mystery had been revealed!
tra1Next, I thought about the promise to have a heart made of flesh, not of stone. (The googler just told me that is from Ezekiel 36:26.) My entire heart is not made of stone but this one resentment is a stony thing that occupied space in my heart, for sure.
This morning, before the rooster crowed and somebody’s dogs scratched at the door, I made the decision to take that stone and hand it over to the Lord. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of reacting. I’m tired of dreading my inevitable interactions with ________. I do feel a little different now, five hours later.  There are more steps to take from here, though. That place in my heart where that ugly mass of old hurt and anger resided needs healing. If it is not healed, the thing might reappear in the same spot. That healing will happen through prayer. I know this can happen. Many years ago, I shared an apartment with someone who was hard to livtra1e with. A wise friar advised me to pray for her. I was able to get over myself and over my resentment when I prayed for her. I began to see her differently and even felt compassion for her. That’s what I must do now.

Why I’m Writing a Prisoner

This morning, after piling my 2 fried eggs atop toast and covering it in a glob of green chilies (a taste acquired in New Mexico), I pulled out my pad of lined paper, a plain white envelope and one of the decent pens we own, not one of the cheap 50 pens we’ve acquired from the months we’ve spent in hotel rooms with my husband’s job over the years. I sat down at our dining room table and began to write. I hardly know this guy. He is the friend of a relative of a relative but I know they love him and vouch for him that he’s a good guy, despite his recent circumstances.

Why I'm writing a prisoner.
Why I’m writing a prisoner.

This is the second prisoner I’ve written over the past four years. When my friend’s relative spent a year in the federal women’s prison in West Virginia. I wrote her about once a month. I took my cues from her. As she wrote me a letter, I wrote one in response. Honestly, I loved getting back into the habit of writing actual letters again. This is what Pope Francis promises us is part of our encounter with the poor. It is an exchange, where there is something to be found for both people. Its not just a one-way giving spree. There’s satisfaction to be found in the exchange. As a person who is 41, I have had the pleasure of living in both worlds: the by-hand and the digital world. Over the years, I’ve let go of the boxes and boxes of cards and letters people sent me when I lived away from home (Spain at 16, Maine at 17, college at 18, Costa Rica at 20). Those cards accompanied me during my time away from the familiar. My Aunt Bonnie was the best and most consistent card writer. Her slanted left handed scrawl was unmistakably recognizable. In her honor, I bought a box from a yard sale this past Saturday. It will allow me to write down people’s special dates and to sort the cards into folders so that I can be totally on top of these things just like she was. I miss so many birthdays, anniversaries of deaths and weddings that it’s really shameful. I hope this system, bought for $2 will help me be more like Aunt Bonnie.
Since I live primarily in this digital world, it is easy to forget that some folks have been thrown back to 1993, technologically speaking. These include my pal who is in a hospital in Washington, DC, who treasures the cards sent to her by friends and family, my grandma in Wisconsin and this guy who is in prison.
tra 1So, what do I write to the guy? Well, I guess I start with the premise that I don’t have to be extra clever or profound or even extra interesting. I just start writing. It turns out that it took me four pages this morning to tell him all about that friend of mine who is in the hospital in Washington, DC. I told him about her lifelong ministry to the poor, something she was doing way before Pope Francis helped make it trendy again. I described visiting her at her office about once a week for over a decade and the circumstances surrounding her recent hospital stay. As I wrote to him, a clever phrase did come to mind and I took the liberty of re-writing it neatly in the margins, “Just because her body is in a prison doesn’t mean her heart and mind have to be.” Nice, I thought. I need to find out if he’s allowed to be sent books or at least photo copies of pages of books (every prison has differing rules). There are probably people with more profound things to say than that, like Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described life in the death camps. Someone like Nelson Mandela. I’ve never read anything he wrote but the guy spent decades imprisoned. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul the Apostle, there are lots of other people. For us, on the “outside” we can read what they have to say and admire them for being so deep in the midst of such desperation. I’m guessing that a prisoner would read another prisoner’s words with an even greater understanding of the journey they are on.
So, when I write to this fellow, I know I’m getting a lot out of it. I got to spend 30 minutes thinking about how much I love and admire my friend about whom I was writing. Re-reading my own writing is a strange pleasure, especially when it has come together and is actually pretty good stuff. In my first letter (this was my second letter, written in response to the one he sent last week), I was very blunt about my intentions for writing to him. Being a Christian is pretty easy sometimes since there is nice, concise instructions on how we are supposed to do this thing. If you look up the 7 corporal (“bodily”) works of mercy, you’ll see that visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned are actually spelled out right there for us. I don’t expect to visit him in prison but my letters are a way to distract and maybe give him something new to think about for a few minutes, which is like a visit. I don’t know where the correspondence will go but I think I will just keep telling him stories about all of the wonderful people I’ve met in my life. I was blunt about my intentions.
St. Francis himself was imprisoned too. That was in the 13th century so I guarantee you he didn’t have a window, 3 hots nor a cot. We could come up with a long list of imprisoned people we’d have loved to correspond with throughout history. In the meantime, if you don’t plan on visiting someone in prison then I suggest you ask God to help you find someone you can write to in prison. I recommend spreading the word around. According to a statistic I just read, it looks like about 1 in every 300 Americans is currently in prison or in jail. Put out an APB on Facebook and ask folks to tell you the name of their aunt, godmother, stepdad or brother-in-law who has been locked away for a time. I rely on the people we know in common to vouch for the guy so I know I’m not getting mixed up with someone who is a danger. If you need help finding someone, I can help spread the word for you. It is taboo to talk about our relatives and loved ones who are in prison but with statistics like 1 in 300, you’ve got to figure that just about every single person you know knows someone who is in jail or prison right now.
So, that’s why I’m writing to a prisoner. It’s also why I think you should write, too.

How this relates to St. Francis:
1. If St. Francis’ prison term was happening right now, how would you get his address? What would write to him?
2. Like Pope Francis, St. Francis was all about seeking out those who are on the margins. Ask God to show you who are on the margins that you can reach out to.
3. In typical colorful medieval metaphor, it is said that St. Francis’ “whole body was a tongue” which means that his whole being actually spoke the Gospel even louder than his voice preached it. As we mediate on the instruction to visit prisoners and we recall that our hero, Jesus was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death, how can your actions speak, telling the world you believe this stuff?