Reflections by Trish Vanni in “Spiritually Speaking”

Still we rise

And Still We Rise

Many years ago, I was in a weekend long workshop with a wonderful spiritual teacher. Most of the people there had faced tremendous loss and hardship. After many folks had shared the burdens they were carrying, the teacher smiled at all of us and said, “Ah, life! It’s a train wreck, but it’s wonderful!”

We all burst out laughing. She was right. Most of our stories had been stories of fairly epic disasters. Some were of our own making, some were not. And I never forgot that phrase because it resonated so deeply with me. My life has been beautiful, vivid, joyful. It’s also had moments that were mind numbing and spirit stopping in their challenge and sadness.

Now the better part of two weeks into physical distancing and sheltering in place, most of us are feeling the effects of isolation. Fear. Frustration. Paranoia (I’ve had a cold for a week!). Some of us have friends and family members who have come down with COVID-19, and many of us have loved ones in cities where the pandemic is in a full surge.

I admit that some days, it’s been feeling a little bit like a train wreck.

I’m doing what I suspect most of you are doing to counteract negativity. Trying to stay productive in my work and ministry. Meeting with people and causes I care about virtually. Praying, meditating, and staying close to members of my faith community. And breaking up the isolation with lots of walks.

After Mass on Sunday, I had my spouse drop me by Purgatory Creek so I could hoof it home the three miles to my house. I was feeling preoccupied about all sorts of stuff, and I figured fresh air and an audiobook could turn the tide. As I walked, I tried to be cheerful and greet each person, couple or family that was biking, running or walking by.

As I passed a dad and his two young sons, my greeting was returned with equal enthusiasm. So I thought I might scoot six feet forward and then turn around and ask the boys, both young elementary schoolers, “How are you doing?!” I had noticed that their dad had been periodically cajoling them to keep moving.

“Terrible!” one shouted, but with an enormous grin on his face. I burst out laughing. “I know, me too sometimes,” I replied. Then, the dad said to me, “You know, I have told them that when I was their age, I was in the middle of the war in Somalia.” He then expressed his gratitude for his life, even in the midst of the health scare.

We talked for a few minutes and I thanked him for helping me stay right minded and grateful. Then we parted.

As I walked, I reflected on his resilience, and the resilience of many of my neighbors who came here as refugees from war-torn regions of the world. I also thought about my meditation teacher, whose joyful disposition and peacefulness are the byproduct of decades of practice inspired by his commitment to overcoming PTSD after Vietnam. I thought about my childhood friend Jennifer’s grandfather, who had a concentration camp tattoo on his arm. I thought of my friends with African American heritage, whose ancestors had the grit and strength to live through the degradation of enslavement.

So many forebears who had epic strength and faith in the face of adversity.

Maya Angelou expressed the resilience of her people in an unforgettable way in the poem “Still I Rise:”

“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/ I rise/ Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/ I rise/ Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave/ I am the dream and the hope of the slave/ I rise/ I rise/ I rise.”

We’re challenged right now, but I deeply believe that we are all strong. We are resilient. Every one of us can point to someone among our ancestors who made it through. Through the loss of land, language heritage. Through famine and war. Through economic strife and physical challenge.

For Christians, this is Easter week and for Jews it is Passover. In both those holy celebrations, we are reminded of the power of the human spirit to move beyond limitations and embrace freedom. At their Seder tables our Jewish neighbors will remember that they were once slaves in Egypt but that a forthright prophet with God’s help defeated a recalcitrant pharaoh. Christians will move through grieving a beloved rabbi lost to capital punishment by the state into the mystery of the resurrection, in which we proclaim him Lord and through which we embrace our new life with him.

So yes, life is a bit of a trainwreck right now but so were building the pyramids and laying the beloved Lord in an umarked tomb. We are not captives. We are the people who dream, and hope and believe.

And we rise.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.

On Being a Person of Faith — And Being Seen

World Hijab Day 2People in my business (faith community leadership) often find themselves discussing trends in our denominations and faith traditions. But as we wring our hands about who’s not with us right now, we often forget that, in fact, the United States is by many measures “a robustly religious country and the most devout of all the rich Western democracies,” according to studies by the Pew Research Center, one of the premier watchers of global religious life.

Americans pray more often, are more likely to attend religious services of all kinds, and assign more importance to the place of faith in their lives than adults in other democratic nations, including Canada, Australia and most European states.

More than half of American adults pray daily (55%). Of 102 countries, the U.S. is the only country that has both above average GDP per capita and above average frequency of daily prayer. Interesting.

I am a person of deep, if ever-evolving, faith convictions. Recently, I had an experience that left me challenged about how, for most of my waking hours, no one who encounters me casually would ever know that fact.

Recently, my friend Fadumo Hassan, who is an observant Muslim, invited her non-hijabi and non-Muslim women friends to participate in World Hijab Day. She asked us to come by Umi’s Boutique, where we would be gifted with a scarf and receive a hijab tutorial. We were encouraged to wear hijab for the day.

I have a number of women in my life who wear hijab. To a person, they are strong, independent women. Dialogue with them has forced me to revisit my presumptions about what hijab represents. Likewise, I have a number of women in my life who are observant Muslims who do not cover, and for equally valid reasons. They have helped me understand diversity in unity, as well.

So I decided to jump in. Amani, one of the boutique’s designers, taught me how to drape the scarf. I wore it in the style of my Somali woman friends — there were options. Learning number one. I was invited to write a message for social media about what this meant to me. I wrote, “Hijab is solidarity with my Muslim sisters.” Other signs read, “Hijab is my pride.” “Hijab is cool.” “Modesty is beauty.” “I am not oppressed.” “Happy World Hijab Day.”

Probably the sweetest moment was right as Amani was done pinning. Simultaneously, Fadumo and she exclaimed, “Trish! You’re so beautiful!” Learning number two. Hijab, particularly when a gorgeous floral scarf, is also self-expression.

But my learning didn’t end there. I stepped out a Umi’s, and suddenly I had a brand new sense of visibility. And with it came self-consciousness.

I know from my extensive interfaith work that many of my Muslim friends undergo more intense scrutiny than I do, even in casuallife moments. Not long ago, I watched an employee of a local retailer hover heavily near three veiled teens. I stepped back to watch him. I couldn’t help but wonder if my daughter and her two best friends would be scrutinized in the same way as they shopped.

As I observed World Hijab Day that afternoon and evening, I was treated very kindly, for the most part. But when I wasn’t, I couldn’t help but wonder — when I rudely accelerated rather than yielded on 169, did the other driver make assumptions based on what would now be my perceived faith tradition? When I tried to make small talk that night with the gentleman sitting next to me at AMC and he gave me the cold shoulder, was it because I was being too friendly or because he didn’t like people like “me?” I can’t know.

It was a really good experience to enter into Fadumo’s and other women’s world. The truth is, in my religious tradition we have a very long history of veiling. Straight through my childhood, Catholic women who were professed religious wore veils — some nuns still do. And it was commonplace for women to wear a chapel veil or mantilla in Church (I have sweet memories of my grandmother bobby pinning Kleenex on my sister Sheila’s and my heads so we could duck in the back of St. Anthony’s in the Bronx and get a glimpse of a bride). If I had been born 50 years earlier, I suspect that my constant thirst for education, which is never satisfied, probably would have taken me happily into the convent.

When I was a young mom, I was at my local Catholic parish and our pastor asked us to go home and look around. If someone came into our house, would there be any sign of our faith visible? I was shocked to realize that in our house, the answer to that was “no.” I decided to hang a cross over our dining table in the kitchen. It was the first of what is now a collection and now is over my desk.

After I moved to Minnesota, I was also influenced by a priest at my parish, but it was a very different experience. In his homily, one of the visiting presiders chided the women in the assembly about wearing gold crosses, as if wearing that jewelry meant something about our faith. I remember how self-conscious I felt. At the time, I was wearing a fairly large gold cross that my husband had given to me. That cross meant a great deal at the time, as it does now, given that he has a very different relationship with God than I do, and it felt very honoring that he gifted it to me. In the wake of that priest’s challenge, I took off my cross and didn’t wear it for easily 15 years.

Well, if you run into me in the produce aisle or walking around the track, you’ll see that my cross is back on. Not only that, but the small cross I received for first communion and the miraculous medal of the blessed mother I received at Confirmation, both from my Aunt Sis, my godmother, are there too. And a gold Medal of St. Benedict, in honor of my seminary years at St. John’s in Collegeville.

I’m a woman of faith no less than my friend Fadumo. I’ve decided to be seen as one. I do not know what my choice would be if I was an observant Muslim. But just as I can wear my cross, my niece Amanda can wear her Star of David, and my friend Devarati can wear her Sanskrit Om, I’m grateful to be in a country that not only allows religious expression, but religious self-expression.

World Hijab Day is Feb. 1. Mark your calendar for 2021. I know Fadumo is eager to welcome you. I’ll be there, in hijab and wearing my cross.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.


The Legacy (and Ongoing Imperatives) of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLKEarlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, home of an important chapter in the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I entered the sanctuary, a few students milled about. Then they left, and I was alone in that sanctified and historic space as a recording of Dr. King giving one of his stirring, prophetic sermons played.

      I closed my eyes. I thought about the thousands of moments that someone else sat in the pew I occupied.

       I thought of the joy of the Ebenezer community as Dr. King preached the gospels’ promises. I thought of the suffering they endured as innocent citizens, including children, were murdered in the fight for justice. I thought of the mountain of grief that flowed over and through them as they brought Dr. King’s body home and laid him to rest.

     And, I thought about their collective vision of a nation that truly lives its creed. While we have yet to fulfill their vision, it nevertheless calls us forward to undo the spectrum of prejudices that plague this nation, and the individual and institutional racism which fuel them.

     In Christianity, we believe that those who go before us, all people who live lives of love, peace, justice and goodwill, join a great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. In Celtic spirituality, which has influenced me greatly, we hold that this fabulous mob — what in Catholicism we call the communion of saints — is spiritually as close as our breath. We believe that our separation is an illusion.

     I thought of all the holy mothers and fathers, the youth and children, the adults and elders, that had prayed in Ebenezer Baptist Church as I listed to Dr. King speak for the better part of a half hour. He was not a man inclined, to use the phrasing of my mentor Fr. Tim, to “throw softballs.” His words comforted at times, yes, but they also challenged me. They evoked visions. They asked that his listeners, in the words of the prophet Joel, “dream dreams.”

     While he lived, Dr. King demanded that of all of us.

     He impacted two 30-somethings in Hackensack, New Jersey, with this message. Irish Catholics and children of immigrants, they were electrified by his vision. Shortly after moving to that integrated city from an almost entirely white town, they moved their children out of the homogenous Catholic schools and into the local public schools, which were far more diverse in every measure. They taught their children the songs of the Civil Rights movement. They instilled in them the belief that “we shall overcome someday.” They affirmed, over and over, to their young daughters that their friends with ancestry from Africa rather than Europe were their equals, all while being honest that this was not yet fully recognized in the culture.

     They were my parents.

     Catholicism has a long history of the practice of pilgrimage and procession. We embrace holy walking. As early as the second century, Roman elites, predominantly women, began making journeys to visit the hermits of the deserts of Egypt.

     My first pilgrimage was when I was 9. My parents were shocked, grieving and angry at the assassination of Dr. King. Hearing that there would be a gathering and memorial at the Bergen County courthouse, they put my youngest sister in her stroller, and taking my other sister and me in hand, walked us the almost three miles down to that gathering. It was Palm Sunday, and the Pastors Association of the city had asked people of faith to gather and process in silence through the city. I cannot imagine a more reverent way to begin what Christians consider the holiest week of the year.

     As I sat in Ebeneezer Baptist, I thought about that day and other ways in which I was marked by being a child during the life of Dr. King. As I stood quietly at his grave (which is shared with his courageous wife, Corretta Scott King), I really was humbled what they stood for and what they accomplished. Even more, I was awed by what they had burned in our hearts, including the heart of a little girl who had just turned 9.

     In the following decades, I’ve had to awaken even more critically to the disparity between Dr. King’s vision and our culture. When I talk about the importance of continuing this work of undoing racism and interrogating white advantage, which I believe must be done by those of us who identify as white, people often respond with a heartfelt, “But we’ve come so far.” As we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy this weekend, we can honor the ground gained, but let’s do more.

     Let’s continue to labor to achieve his compelling vision. Let’s challenge and dismantle the racism and white supremacy that have been emboldened, normalized, and tolerated in recent years. Let’s keep learning and working. So that one day, our great-grandchildren can unequivocally say, in the words of Dr. King’s unforgettable 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, “Free at last! Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!” All of us.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.


Time to Find Our Voices

find your voiceIf you were to ask your best friend what your voice sounds like, what would they say? No, I don’t mean the resonance or timbre, but the quality of your self-expression and your ability to bring yourself forward in important conversations. Are you hesitant? Forthright? Protective? Harsh? Compassionate?

I ask this for a few reasons. First, we are at a seriously fractured moment in our national discourse, including in our religious institutions – which are pretty fraught settings at time in that so much “right,” “wrong,” “we believe,” “we don’t believe,” is in the picture.  Whether its on facebook, the telephone, the family dinner table, many of us are having a hard time speaking up, never mind speaking out.

Particularly when issues matter to us, it can be hard to find the right words, the clear words, the prudent words in which our ideas and passions can be expressed. Without frying the friendship, that is.

I’ve been blessed to be part of the Interfaith Circle for the past 14 years. In that time, we’ve worked together, around tables, to plan events for the community, including our annual Thanksgiving celebration. Sometimes, the international news pressed us to ask each other uncomfortable questions. Sometimes, we had to sit with dissonance and keep exploring to come to a new place of mutuality and understanding.

This past weekend, I was privileged to represent Interfaith Circle at a gathering at the Islamic Center of Minnesota. Three hundred or so people had gathered to stand in solidarity with our Muslim friends and neighbors, and commit to speaking out against religious bigotry and hatred. At last year’s  Interfaith Thanksgiving gathering, Bet Shalom’s Rabbi Jill Crimmings shared with us the outpouring to her community in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre. Now, friends are reaching out to Catholics in solidarity about the bombing of the Jolo Cathedral in Mindanao, the Philippines—just as we reached out to our African American Christian friends after the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in Charleston.

All murders are horrifying. All massacres are an assault against the Creator. But for me, as a pastoral leader, the image of people facing death in their house of worship, be it mosque, synagogue, or church, is particularly devastating.

In Minnesota, it seems there’s a particular premium placed on not upsetting people. It’s part of the multi-faceted phenomenon of “Minnesota Nice.” But recent events have found me centering myself even more deeply in my religious tradition, which gave me a teacher who is not particularly hesitant about speaking truth to power, particularly when people are marginalized, threatened, or oppressed.

Ephesians reminds me, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” That means that I have to find my voice and make it heard. Against white supremacy. Against gun violence. Against religious bigotry of all kinds. Against every one of the “phobias” plaguing us.

There will be people who pull back from me. There will be people who think I’m too direct. But I live in times, and you live in times, where there is very little space left for the faint of heart. Dive into your scriptures and spiritual teaching. Find the place from which your voice can spring, and root it there.

And speak your truth in love, to borrow from St. Paul. You are part of the spiritual solution. In my mind, that’s the ultimate Minnesota nice.


plumeria Ohana and “Who’s Your Family?”

According to the U.S. Census bureau, “A family is a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.”

I’m sure that makes sense when you’re the government counting heads, but at this time of year, when connecting and giving is so in the foreground, that definition seems a little too narrow for me.

That definition wouldn’t, for example, include Steven, Alex and Jasmine. Those are the three young adults for whom I am “the other mother” that they had, for better or worse, growing up in EP. That definition wouldn’t count Nancy, Karen, Megan and about a dozen other women who have been sisters to me over the years. Not to mention Therese and Karen, who are my sister Sheila’s best friends. Because as she and I like to tell them, “The sisters of my sister are my sisters, too!”

If I had stuck with that Census Bureau definition, I’d never have recognized my second set of parents, Dodie and Bill. I wouldn’t have been an aunt to Tom, Sarah and Jane. Or counted Rick, Saleem and Tom as the brothers that I had always wished for when I was a kid.

I have a cluster of people that I love and count as family who are Hawaiian by birth and culture. Through them, I learned a beautiful word that describes this expansive experience of family: Ohana.

Ohana means family, but in a much wider sense than blood relations. It’s your close relatives, but also your cousins, in-laws, neighbors, friends and anyone else you collect along the way.

I’m so glad that Makana, my little brother from Nanakuli, gave me this wonderful descriptive word to honor the fact that “family” is so much broader than any family of origin. Having a name for my experience wonderfully affirmed a lifelong practice of accumulating and spiritually adopting people around me!

I’ve also learned that the spirit of aloha should always inform how you relate to your ohana. You share everything, from land to food to raising children. You should gladly nurture and care for people in your ohana, especially those who are young and those who are aged.

I have many people I count as part of my Eden Prairie ohana. I raised my children with some of them. With others, I got active in service to the community. My EP ohana, which stretches across multiple Christian faith communities and a few mosques, uplifted me and helped me expand and strengthen the spiritual ties I feel to the God of my understanding.

Every time we are at a “starting” point, something different seems more possible to me. So as we bring in the New Year, I’d like to invite you, my Eden Prairie readers, to try on the idea of ohana and all that it offers.

Our city is evolving in wonderful and diverse ways. This year is bound to bring us new people, including people grounded in cultures or religions that differ from our own. Let’s meet them and greet them with aloha, with the excitement, even expectation, that our ohana is about to expand.

Because as Lilo and Stitch reminded us, “Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind or forgotten!” What a great place from which to start the new year!


The Power of Gratitude

“What’s the magic word?” our mother would ask whenever my sisters or I were clamo

Gratitudering for something or other. It was important to say “please” when making a request, and equally important to say “thank you.”

It’s Thanksgiving time, our national tribute to gratitude. It’s a time that beyond boundaries of culture, religious expression and geographical location we all stand together in solidarity as we give thanks. Thanks for family, for friends, for this country and its freedoms. Thanks for the turkey and stuffing. Or the lasagna. Or the ham. Or the masala.

The spiritual writer and mystic David Stendl-Rast asserts that gratitude is the doorway to the divine. To be grateful is to shift our focus from distress or scarcity to where life is full and rich. It moves us out of negativity into a place of appreciation. For many of us, it involves turning our hearts and minds to the God of our understanding.

I have friends who are doing a practice of acknowledging one thing they are grateful for each day in this month of November. I know others who are using a gratitude journal, and every day jotting down something that strikes them as noteworthy, no matter how small.

Both those practices remind me that gratitude is not just random moments of saying “thanks,” but almost an art form. It’s an outlook, a way of viewing the world with openness to seeing the good and acknowledging its source.

What am I thankful for this week?

My amazing spouse and my remarkable children, two aging cats and a neurotic dog. Without them, my inner circle would not be so rich.

Our comfortable home, with its full cupboards and running water, which shelters us from steamy summers and frosty Minnesota winters.

My restored health after a distressing concussion and years of recuperation.

My family and friends, particularly my Interfaith Circle companions, who every year give months of their lives to bring our community together in understanding and peace.

My faith community, in which I get to love, and laugh, and draw closer to the divine life.

My state and nation, where no matter how fractious it gets, there’s hope that, eventually, we’ll find a path to common ground.

Our beautiful planet, with all its natural wonders and glory, and the increasing numbers of people awakening to its care.

Gratitude also helps me to look beyond the “easy to be grateful for” items. When I’m distressed about social issues such as racism, homophobia, and more, it pushes me to be grateful for the amazing allies in the battle for justice, and for the privilege of participating myself in working for change.

Even when things are bleak, there’s something to grab onto. Even if that’s something I take for granted, such as my heart beating without my instruction, or each breath that I draw automatically.

At our house, we often start Thanksgiving dinner by naming something for which we are each grateful. As we do, I’ll once again be reminded of the generosity of so many people I know and love, and of the God who I have come to believe is source of all.



Milkweed and the fertile days of Autumn

I’m aware of milkweed.

It began about a dozen years ago. It was a glorious Summer. But Spring had brought less than happy news: The monarch population was dipping precipitously, in part due to loss of migration habitat, in part due to pesticides. The prior year, 2004, had seen an all-time low.

So as the milkweed on the lakeshore cropped up, I found myself mowing the grass less rigorously, scooting around plants where I could. My daughter Mairead, then 5, was fascinated by the beautiful yellow and green caterpillars.

Soon, interest turned into a full-blown farming and husbandry operation. Do you know that nine out of 10 caterpillars don’t make it to butterflies? There are all kinds of risks, it appears, to be the lowly caterpillar — not least among them birds.

We cleaned out old monster Costco animal cracker jugs and started bringing caterpillars through their chrysalis stage to the mighty monarch. All of them were named catty, by the way. And the first fruit of this labor? “Butty,” of course.

It went on for years. Our milkweed trove only got more fabulous after an Eden Prairie Girl Scout troop did a bronze award project that included distributing seeds to all the troops in town. Ours went into the hill along the lake, and today they are glorious.

My friend Wendy was observing that her neighborhood in Minneapolis has become milkweed central. No one is pulling the plants as they might have done in the past, instead letting them take root in alleys and gardens and lawns almost without impunity.

The milkweed is not nature’s most attractive flower, despite its fabulous fragrance, so this welcoming of migrants is truly laudable. Even in friend Pastor Mike’s thoughtfully planned, garden tour worthy backyard, they are welcome guests, even as their stalky selves spike out of otherwise attractive plantings.

I was walking the other day around Purgatory Creek. The leaves were just hinting the current change of color, but the wildflowers and lakeside plants were already blazing. Or crisping, as it were.

Many of them were dried, brown and devoid of leaves and petals, presenting for view up-until-that-moment hidden seed pods. And wow, were they beautiful. As artfully shaped as kaleidoscope images, geometric in startling ways, some spiked, some flat. Even in their desiccated state, they were spectacular.

So, too, the milkweed. It’s dried out now. Seed pods are poised to burst. They are no longer standing out amid the more desirable flora, their showy leaves and wacky pink blooms grabbing the eyes attention but blending in amid the frost fried landscape.

It strikes me as interesting that it is now, as days are cooling and evening enters earlier, that the milkweed is about to burst in fruitfulness. The silken seeds will peek out, then leap in escape from the pods that confine them. This birth is not for the young, but for the weathered and experienced. It comes at the end of the life cycle, not in the beginning.

Once the “butty” raising child went off to the U, I became an empty-nester. It would seem that a certain chapter of my life came to a close, one that I thought of as the time of new beginnings. The era of fertility.

But now I look at the milkweed and all the dried companions and think about the creativity of this time of my life. I’m like that milkweed, if not quite dry, heading there. Heading toward what Mary Oliver calls a “crisp glamour.”

Speaking of them she writes, “I wish you would walk with me out into the world. I wish you could see what has to happen, how each one crackles like a blessing over its thin children as they rush away.” I may yet be about to burst.

Grandma and mae

Hanorah Hayes, soon to be Sullivan, and her sister Mae traveling from Murroe, County Limerick to the Port of New York.


Friendship, loyalty, love, and everyone is Irish

My father, John Patrick Sullivan, wanted my sisters and me to be deeply immersed in Irish culture. Had my mother not won the argument on the day of my birth, I would have been named Siobhan, a name that was, at the time, almost unheard of in the United States.

My three immigrant Irish grandparents were my dad’s expert help (the fourth was born shortly after his mother debarked the boat, in case you’re wondering!). We learned Irish songs at family parties (and could be called to lead them) as well as the basics of Irish step dancing. I came to love Irish stories and taught myself to recite William Butler Yeats from memory.

When we were naughty, we were “bold.” When you wanted a ride but weren’t going to get one, you would be taking “shanks mare.” When things were wonderful, they were “grand.” You were corrected if you were “too full of yourself” or “getting a big head.” Speaking of heads, they were “noggins.”

My sister Sheila and I felt so Irish that when our next-door neighbor (whose mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution) asked us what nationality we were, we said “Irish.” He gave the two of us a stern correction!

Among the symbols of Irish culture that I have always loved is the Claddagh, which appears on a ring that is used both for friendships and as a wedding band. Named after the fishing village in Galway in which it originated, the traditional design of a Claddagh ring consists of two hands clasping a crowned heart.

The hands represent friendship, the crown loyalty, and the heart, as one might guess, love. When worn by an unmarried person, it can be used to convey the relationship status of the wearer. For example, worn on the right hand with the point of the heart turned toward the fingertips, it signifies that the wearer is single, and may be looking for love.

The legend surrounding the symbol of the hands, heart and crown tells of Richard Joyce, who lived in the village of Claddagh in the 16th century. Captured by Algerian corsairs, Joyce was enslaved. During that time, he mastered the art of goldsmithing.

Longing for his beloved, he crafted a ring that would remind him of her. Eight years later, freed, he returned to Ireland where he found his love waiting for him. They married and remained together for the rest of their lives.

Nowadays, you are as likely to see the Claddagh used as a tattoo design as a ring, with the motto, “Let love and friendship reign.”

I’ve been thinking that the values that the Claddagh expresses are so needed in our age.

First, we live in a time when it’s critical to extend our hands to others to clasp them friendship. At the recent People Fest at Staring Lake Park, I had a chance to meet and greet neighbors from an incredible array of cultural backgrounds. All of them were extending a hand of greeting and welcome to each other. Even when we didn’t share a language, this gesture spoke our intention when words could not.

Next, it’s time to be loyal. Not in the clannish, exclusive sense, but to find ways to stand together where we hold values in common. Kindness, justice, compassion, courtesy, commitment and mutual appreciation cross so many lines of “difference.”

Finally, let’s find ways to express our love. We live in such fractious times, where we’re more often focused on our differences and attendant critiques than on looking for places of mutuality. This is a particularly critical task for me as a Christian. My faith tradition reminds me to love others as I love myself. It even goes so far as to tell me, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

The Christian community does not have a corner on upholding God’s love! So let’s put on our Irish in the days ahead, and see where we can share friendship, show loyalty and spread love. When I finally find a leprechaun’s gold, I’ll make sure I always have a collection of Claddaghs in my pocket so I can give them out to anyone I meet who expresses these values, Irish or not! Don’t be surprised if I whisper an Irish blessing as I pass it to you.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community and animator of the Power Center, an interfaith center for spirituality. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missaghi. “Spiritually Speaking” appears weekly.

Spiritually Speaking Column, Eden Prairie News, August 2018

“Quick! Be Spiritual!”

So when Tim, the editor of this illustrious newspaper, reminded me about a forgotten column, I immediately dashed off a promise to quickly get writing. He replied in jest, “It’s like, ‘Quick! Be spiritual!’ That’s got to be tough.”

Tim has a great sense of humor. Like a good minister, he’s a great cajoler and encourager. And without realizing what he was doing, he also gave me a great topic for this column.

I don’t know about you, but I am struggling lately with the sheer volume of upsetting events around me. On the public stage, I’ve been profoundly distressed by the imprisonment of migrants and refugees and their vulnerable children at our borders. That should come as no surprise to anyone grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The very first principle of Catholic social teaching (which extends itself, due to its beauty, well beyond Catholic circles) reminds us that “people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.” This applies during war, natural disaster, famine or when their lives are endangered by violence.

This teaching is grounded in the experience of the Israelites, who lived as aliens without a home for a stunning stretch of their story as a people. The Torah reminds us, “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.”

This teaching hits close to home for all Christians, who hear in the Gospel of Matthew how Joseph and Mary were forced to escape with their newborn son, Jesus, into Egypt to flee the death threats of Herod. Jesus will one day teach the foundational principle of welcome to his own followers: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. A stranger, and you welcomed me.”

On the local level, I’ve watched determined friends struggle to raise awareness of the lack of affordable housing in Eden Prairie. It was not until my sister began looking for an apartment here this summer that I saw how high our apartment rents are. Right now, they average $1,233 (for a one-bedroom) to $1,902 (for a three-bedroom — rents that are 20 percent higher than average in the Twin Cities metro).

Well, we have great quality of life here that justifies that cost, you might say: But these rents cause a staggering 68.3 percent of Eden Prairie households to be cost-burdened, sometimes forcing people to move and lose access to our wonderful schools, among many other things.

Common Bond Communities and United Properties are leading the effort to create a development with mixed-housing options for residents with lower incomes in Eden Prairie. Certainly, that will include those in our community who came here as refugees seeking safety and prosperity. It will also include people in entry-level positions, young families, senior citizens and those in chronically underpaid positions like teachers and child-care workers. The leaders of a number of faith communities, including mine, support this effort.

Which leads me to the second principle of Catholic Social Teaching: “The overriding principle … is that individuals must make economic, political and social decisions not out of shortsighted self-interest, but with regard for the common good. That means that a moral person cannot consider only what is good for his or her own self and family but must act with the good of all people as his or her guiding principle.” Indeed.

Finally, I’ve been on a roller coaster with some folks in my life who are struggling with chronic health issues and their fallout. To respect their privacy, I’ll leave it at that.

So what does all of that have to do with my smart and insightful editor Tim, you ask?

We live in an age where people are more likely to say that they are spiritual than that they are religious. Religion (perhaps justifiably due to institutional abuses and hypocrisy) has a bad rap. To be spiritual, however, is attractive. It means that I believe that there is something greater than me afoot; that we are all one. To be spiritual is to care about other people, about animals, about the health of the planet. Spiritual people are kind. They are loving, to others and to themselves.

Given the issues that come across our newsfeeds, televisions, radios, and newspapers with unrelenting intensity, as well as the ups and downs of our personal relationships, maybe it’s time to look at how spiritual we are. More and more, I’m seeing being spiritual not as a “feeling” but as a practice. A muscle that all of us can build up and to exercise as needed.

The news upsets you? “Quick! Be spiritual!” — act with kindness, love and compassion (yes, sometimes despite the evidence). You’re scared about changes you see in your neighborhood or city? “Quick! Be Spiritual!” Consider that the increasing diversity we live with enriches us rather than detracts. Your Facebook feed giving you agita? “Quick! Be spiritual!” Resist the countering slam or rant. The family has you in a spin? “Quick! Be spiritual!” Breathe and expand the context in which you see the upsetting person and see if you can find some micron of compassion and understanding.

It’s not actually all that tough. But it does require some degree of conscious effort and a little muscle. Thank you, Tim, for this week’s mantra: “Quick! Be spiritual!” I have a feeling I’ll be using it a lot in the days ahead.

Trish Sullivan Vanni, Ph.D., is pastoral director of the Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community and animator of the Power Center, an interfaith center for spirituality. She shares this space with Bernard E. Johnson, Beryl Schewe, Rod Anderson, Timothy A. Johnson and Nanette Missagh. This column appeared first in the Eden Prairie News.

WomenArrivingAtTheTomb hi Qi

The Women at theTomb by He Qi

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

The great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But,” she insists, “it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark”

This is the truth of the resurrection story we hear today, the story of Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, the women who come to the tomb. Throughout the gospel of Mark, the friends and followers of Jesus have a hard time catching on to who he is. And now, after his execution as a criminal, we can imagine that the men, filled with fear for their lives, are in hiding, and the women – the faithful women – are coming forward to do their duty as good Jews to care for his body.

This is not the Gospel of Luke with its heavenly beings, or the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus appears and speaks, or the Gospel of John with its triumphant language and body that is properly prepared placed in a new tomb, thanks to Joseph of Arimathea. This is Mark. It’s a far simpler story. Three women and a young man, sometimes called a gardener, and a stone that is rolled away.

It’s stark depiction of Easter morning, where Jesus is nowhere to be found.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

I would argue that this is, because it is so stark and so bleak, the most powerful depiction of the resurrection. In it we see Mary and the women plunged into the very familiar, very human reality of death. This is our reality; this is our experience. We are bereft. We are fearful.

Writer Tim Phillips notes that the worst thing about death in all its forms may be that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else.

“Addiction” he says, “robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs us of the energy to imagine [some kind of wholeness]. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that might put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive deaths hold on us.”  I have had experiences of this. Perhaps you have too.

But we also have the capacity to awaken our imaginations, to trust and believe just as the women at the tomb did as the young man told them, “He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

Easter is our invitation, as the poet Wendell Berry says, to “practice resurrection.”  Practicing resurrection is learning to walk in the darkest night. Practicing resurrection is believing that in the midst of it all, wrapped in mystery, is a life-giving grace that exceeds anything we can imagine. Practicing resurrection is affirming that God is with us; that the very creation, in its cycles of death and new birth, pulses with resurrection power.

And that we, too, beloved of God, the sisters and brothers of the Jesus who trusted, have resurrection power, as well.

“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain…”

We know how this story plays out. The Gospel says that the women didn’t say anything, but it appears that someone eventually broke down and shared what had happened with the others. (Probably the woman who was the oldest, over-responsible sister in her family!)  And we also know that somehow, starting on this Easter morning, the darkness of their grief was transformed, and the people knew that Jesus lived for them.

And with their recognition that he lived, (and what that looked like is a mystery of our faith), the first disciples, men and women once crushed by grief and huddled in fear, broke free – resurrected – and welcomed the new creation that Jesus had unleashed; the disciples of Jesus made one in the breaking of the bread,  God’s beloved community, right now, right here, on earth as it is in heaven.

In every age humankind has been given reasons to stop trusting this, to not believe as the words of the ancient prayer affirms, that “death could not contain him.” We have chosen to be fearful. To hate. To judge. To be cynical. To embrace resignation and apathy.

On Easter, the Jesus that the tomb could not contain, our resurrected Christ, invites us to reject all that and embrace the life that he offers, long ago on an Easter morning, now again this day and every day. Life abundant. Unsurpassed love. The freedom of the Children of God.

Every time two or more of us gather, or act in his name, he is with us. Where compassion is, he is there, where love is, he is there. Where the fight for those who are the least takes place, he is there.

“He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to the State Capitol; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your school; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to your place of work; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

“He is going before you to every place you enter; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

And when we see him, he will be our reminder of who we are. He will be our sign to break our silence and unleash our love. To be like the three faithful women at the tomb, to tell others who have not seen what we have seen. To proclaim that in a world where things die, there is also resurrection.

“Love lives again, that with the dead has been: Love is come again, like wheat arising green!”


ECC Ordains its First Woman Bishop

“It’s a new day in a new kind of Catholic Church,” writes Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter. Her story about the ordination of Bishop Denise Donato can be read here.

Charis joins the other churches of the ECC in celebrating this landmark occasion and welcoming Bishop Denise’s leadership.

gun stop

There was a great deal of pain in our praying community this weekend as we processed the most recent tragedy in our schools and the deaths of yet another large number of children and adults. Some people were interested in hearing about collective action that is being taken to call upon our legislators to  protect citizens, particularly our children, from the devastation of automatic weapons. This is really not a partisan issue. As followers of the one we call “Prince of Peace,” (the one who said it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and be drowned than let harm come to a child) we need to speak, and speak loudly, against what is going on unchallenged in our culture.

Here are opportunities for action.

February 20nd (Tuesday)
Moms Demand Action MN at the State Capitol at 11 a.m.  You do not need to be a mom to support this group, which also has a student counterpart convening.

February 22nd (Thursday)
Rally at the State Capitol Rotunda from 2:00 until 3:15.  Or, join friends and neighbors at Congressman Erik Paulsen’s office to draw his attention to our concerns. Thursday, February 22nd, 4:30 until 6:15. 250 Prairie Center Drive, Suite 315 Eden Prairie. In the interest of full disclosure, both are organized by Indivisible, a partisan organization working to unseat Congressman Paulsen.

National School Walkouts
March 14th and also April 20th (anniversary of Columbine HS massacre). Consider standing in solidarity with our local students and teachers. Will begin at 10 a.m. and last for 17 minutes.

March 24th, March for Our Lives”
The March for Our Lives is a planned demonstration, scheduled to take place on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C. and throughout the United States. Student organizers are planning the march following the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety.”

%d bloggers like this: