“There’s a BUG in here! A BIG BUG!!!” It’s been a pretty hectic day, and those are not the words I want to hear right now, being that I don’t exactly consider myself a fan of “big bugs.” Tonight was our community night at L’Arche Harbor House—an evening when anyone with any connection to or interest in Harbor House is invited to join the community in celebrating all that is L’Arche. After participating in a program at our community center, which involves plenty of singing, dancing, prayer, and reflection, all are invited to one of the homes for dinner. Our house had hosted about 20 people. It’s a joy to be able to share the gift of L’Arche—but it’s also a lot of preparation, and by the end of the day, I’m pretty tired. Our guests have returned home, and the core members are getting ready for bed; the day is finally winding down, or so I thought, until I hear one of the core members shouting about the alleged “big bug” from the bathroom. “What is this bug DOING in here?!” I move closer to the door, trying to pretending that I am not at all phased by the idea of a large bug in the bathroom. Then the door to the bathroom cracks open, and a hand thrusts out as a voice exclaims, “HERE. A big bug!!!” In his hand, he holds a palm-sized stuffed ladybug that belongs to one of the other core members, and I dissolve into relieved laughter as I take the stuffed animal. That’s enough excitement for one day.
“Kinship—not serving the other but being one with the other. Jesus was not a man for others; he was one with them,” says Father Greg Boyle in the book Tattoos on the Heart. There are many reasons that I moved to the L’Arche Harbor House in Jacksonville almost two months ago, but when I try to express what exactly it was that led me to L’Arche after graduating from college this past May, I keep coming back to this call to kinship that Father Greg Boyle talks about; God’s invitation to go beyond serving others and seek to be one with others, especially those who feel forgotten or pushed aside. L’Arche is made up of communities all around the world where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. Core members, those with disabilities, and assistants, who provide support to the core members with whatever they may need, share a home and a community where they can celebrate, mourn, laugh, cry, and learn with one another. L’Arche gives assistants the unique chance to go beyond doing things for people with disabilities, and invites them to become one with them, giving them the opportunity to not only to offer their gifts to the core members, but also to receive the many gifts that the core members have to share with them.
When I reflect on the things I’ve been learning at L’Arche so far, one word that I keep returning to is “unconditional.” Life in L’Arche so far has felt countercultural, even rebellious, compared to the way that current society is structured. It seems that the way our culture has been structured is full of conditions. When we give things away, whether it be love, a gift, assistance, advice, or hospitality, it’s often attached to some kind of condition, even if we don’t recognize it or name it. I’ll love you, as long as you love me back. I’ll help you, but you have to show me gratitude. I’ll welcome you, if you prove yourself to be a good guest.
Much of our human experience depends on our ability to trust. I’ve come to realize that the things that are most important to me, like faith and relationships, are built primarily on trust. Trusting is one of the most challenging things to do, because it requires us to take a risk; we must be courageous and bold enough to have faith in something that we cannot control. When we trust other people, we are open and vulnerable with them because we believe that they will love and value us despite our weaknesses. We allow ourselves to be guided by others because we believe that they will lead us to goodness and joy, even though we may not know for sure. When we trust, we reveal to others our true selves, with our gifts and weaknesses, our suffering and our joy, allowing us to forge strong and authentic relationships. When we do this, we are taking an enormous risk, because we may not know for sure whether the other person will still love us when we are being vulnerable and weak; we may not know for sure that they will lead us down the right path or reveal the truth to us. These are things that we believe because have faith in another.
To trust is one of the boldest things that we can do because, as I mentioned, it means that we must relinquish some of our control, and be willing to follow where another is leading us even when we cannot see the path. Sometimes this will require us to do or believe things that we may not understand, or things that may cause us fear. When I visualize trust, I think of walking through the dark, guided by a voice, and believing that this voice is leading you to the light, even though you cannot see the path before you. Sometimes we end up trusting in the wrong things—things that will only lead us deeper and deeper into darkness instead of toward light. If we are to overcome challenges, to grow into who we are meant to be, and to find our way when we get lost, then we must learn to trust the correct voices. This is a lesson that I have learned slowly, after some time wandering and straying from the path.
With Christmas only a few days away, in my family, it’s crunch time (and I’m guessing we aren’t the only ones). It’s time to buy last minute gifts (or, if you’re like me, start your Christmas shopping), finish sending out Christmas cards, put the last of the decorations up, and make sure that everything is prepared for the big day. Christmas is a time of celebration, peace, togetherness, and joy. However, it can be hard to feel the happiness and light-heartedness of the season when as we sit in our cozy living rooms, Christmas tree glowing and a fire warming us, we turn on the news to be bombarded with images of continuing riots in Ferguson, innocent schoolchildren being murdered in the Middle East, and cops in New York being brutally assassinated. How can we celebrate peace when we live in a world so divided by racism, violence, and hatred? How can we feel joyful when there is suffering within our own families, or in our own hearts?
It’s difficult to reconcile the celebration of Christmas with all of the horrific tragedies that create such intense heartache for so many. We may feel guilty about participating in festivities while so many are hurting, or we may feel too much heaviness in our own hearts to join in the carefree attitude we refer to as “Christmas spirit.” We may be torn between acknowledging the suffering going on around us, whether that be in the Middle East, the US, or in our own home, or simply putting our recognition of these tragedies on hold, and temporarily blocking it out until the Christmas season is over.
I have always believed that a strong relationship with God is central to my existence. Even though I am flawed, inconsistent, often distracted, and get led astray, I know that everything in my life builds upon this relationship. I also know that this relationship is deeply personal, and that there is a big difference between knowing God and knowing about God. I go to a Catholic university, which has required me to take several theology classes, but if I do not take what I learn in these classes to heart and allow it to affect my life, then theology has about as much of an effect on my relationship with God as any history class. Our relationship with God is a heart-to-heart one, and although the guidance of other people is often essential in our path to relationship with God, only you can take that essential last step, choosing to close the gap between you and God, because God desires to connect with our innermost selves, including the parts of ourselves that others do not understand or that we choose to hide.
To be in true relationship with God, you have to know him, know his heart, and hear his voice. Relationship requires trust, and you cannot trust someone that you do not know. So how exactly do you get to know God? This is a question that I have personally grappled with, and I would guess that others have too. It’s not easy to get to know someone who we can’t sit down next to and have a face to face conversation with. Of course, we experience God directly in a multitude of ways—through the Eucharist, through scripture, through the words and actions of others, and more. Nevertheless, this can be difficult to understand sometimes—we are human, after all! I personally tend to get distracted during Mass, or misunderstand scripture, and as much as I’d like to say that I easily see God in every person I encounter, sometimes that isn’t the case. I can work on all of these things constantly in order to strengthen my relationship with God. I think there is also, however, one more essential way to get to know God that we tend to ignore.
I’ve written in some of my previous posts that my junior year of college was a difficult one for me. I felt very unbalanced, and I realized that I had to make a lot of changes. The summer was a rejuvenating time—I finally got the chance to take a step back, do some reflecting, and begin to feel balanced again. I felt more centered, peaceful, and tranquil than I had in a while. Now, a few months later, I’m in the midst of my senior year, and I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that it’s a lot harder to feel balanced when I’m juggling the competing responsibilities of my academics, my leadership responsibilities within the Office of Social Justice, my jobs, and my friendships. My challenge has been to hold onto that inner tranquility and centeredness that I found over the summer even in the midst of a busy schedule.
When I was in high school, the movie Mean Girls was arguably the most popular movie among my peers. I probably watched it an average of once a month, and my friends would constantly quote dialogue from the movie or reference funny scenes. Although my friends and I have moved on from our preoccupation with Mean Girls, there is one scene in the movie that came back to me recently. There is a part in the movie where the main character, Cady, who has just moved to the US after growing up in Africa (her parents are zoologists), visits a new friend’s house. In the scene, several girls stand in front of a mirror, and each girl takes a turn saying something that she doesn’t like about herself—my pores are huge, my arms look fat, etc.—before looking expectantly at Cady, waiting for her to join in on the self-criticism. Even though this scene is presented in a comical way, I think it portrays an unfortunate reality: that the practice of self-rejection is encouraged in our society.
We live in a culture where sometimes it feels like we’re all given a mirror and expected to point out all of our flaws. This rejection of ourselves reaches much deeper than physical appearance—it affects our sense of worth. Sometimes, I think it feels like we are living in a paradox. Our culture encourages us to pursue perfection, yet because perfection is impossible to attain, we will always fall short. We are expected to be critical of ourselves, to be disappointed in our shortcomings. If we are satisfied with ourselves despite our failure, then it would seem that we aren’t pursuing the standard of perfection that we are supposed to be striving for. It would mean that we reject the notion that happiness is being perfect, in eliminating all flaws. It is viewed as a shameful thing to be at peace with our imperfections in a world where weakness is viewed as an ugly, disgraceful trait to be hidden away. Continue reading Listening Inward: Recognizing Our Sacredness→
Mental illness has been the subject of much discussion recently due to the tragic loss of Robin Williams. His death reminds us of the devastating effects of mental illness, and the need to address this problem. Mental illness is a result of chemical imbalances and physical abnormalities in the brain, as well as one’s environment, and it affects the mind, body, and spirit—it’s all encompassing. I think the issue begs an important question: what is the role of faith in mental illness? Of course, I don’t have the definitive answer. What I can offer are my thoughts on the subject, based on my own experiences.
In a 2012 survey It’s obvious that mental illness is a major issue in our society. I have experienced my own struggles with anxiety during my time in college, and have received professional treatment. Anxiety is a fairly prevalent issue among college students. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems for college students. When I was struggling the most, I felt very distant from God. I was frustrated with myself, and I believed that if I only worked harder on my relationship with God, then I wouldn’t be in such a dark place. I thought that a lack of faith was part of my problem.
I’ve been very fortunate over the past three years to lead service trips for other students through the Office of Social Justice at Mount St. Mary’s as part of a leader development program called CORE. Although my official title is “CORE Leader,” in all of my experiences leading trips I’ve consistently discovered that I am in fact the one being led. As is the case for many of us (and, I’d imagine, college students especially!) in almost any type of experience in life, I often go into service thinking that I have answers, understanding, and wisdom, and come out humbled, with a new sense of how much there is that I still do not understand, and with the realization that I have something profound to learn from each and every individual I encounter.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, as I sat across from a woman I’d just met at the Frederick County Rescue Mission, which serves free lunch and breakfast to members of the community each day. I was there with a group of high school students, and I’d just sat down at a table to chat with some of the guests eating lunch there, expecting to engage in small talk about the food, weather, etc. Instead, I met Ana Maria. Ana Maria told me that her and her husband had been coming to the Rescue Mission for many years after she’d had to go on disability.
I just returned from a week at Camp GLOW, which is a retreat/camp for adults with intellectual disabilities run by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. This is my second year as a companion for the participants of the camp, and each year I’ve witnessed God working in beautiful ways through the people I meet and the experiences that we share. I’ve come away from the camp both years struck by how clearly God communicates to me through the people that I encounter at the camp, and saddened by how stigma and stereotypes prevent so many from opening themselves up to learning from people with intellectual disabilities.
I think that it’s deeply unfortunate when we write off entire groups of people as having nothing to offer us, as being somehow “less than” ourselves, because God often uses these individuals to communicate to us in very personal ways. People with intellectual disabilities are just one group among many, including the poor, the mentally ill, the dying, the elderly, and more, who we often unintentionally (or intentionally) brush to the fringes of society.