About Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

Pilgrim, writer, speaker, retreat director, social media minister, church secretary - it's hard to believe I was once a corporate executive, but I was. Married to an incredible man, have a spectacular stepdaughter, dog and cat.

Camino, beginnings, endings, ongoing…

The Camino de Santiago was pretty quiet during Covid, just like everything else. This year, several of my friends have made the pilgrimage and it reawakened my own memories – and reminded me of the on-going gifts of the journey.

It was so interesting for me to see people posting photos and reflections – almost simultaneously, they were about a day or two apart from one another – of pathways I had trod six years earlier. Although many of my friends went after I did, I don’t recall feeling as passionately as I did this year. Not sure what that’s about, but I’ll stick with reawakening.

Some whereon the camino.

So much time and effort went into preparing for pilgrimage. Physically preparing myself to walk 500 miles, practically preparing in various ways from travel plans to what to bring. With so many books, films, websites, and more, there is almost too much information about how to “do” the Camino. Of course, the minute one sets foot on the path in St. Jean Pied de Port, the preparing and the doing becomes something else – it is about fully being. You can kind of prepare for that, but honestly – the Holy Spirit is pretty clear about making stuff very real at that point.

In any case, I have relived many of my memories, and I am drawn more deeply into what I am called to do as a result of my journey. That’s the thing about the Camino, it never really ends. Once you go, nothing in your life is the same after it, and one must open to what comes next.

If you think you have to go go France and Spain, or anywhere for that matter, to “get” to this, I offer you perhaps the most important element of Camino… While being outside of your normal circumstances is a big game changer, and one I highly recommend, it does not have to be afar. Immediately I think of the 2016 film, Phil’s Camino. It was made by the indomitable Annie O’Neill, about someone perhaps even more indomitable, Phil Volker, now of blessed memory. Having Stage 4 cancer, Phil could not leave Vashon Island, Washington, so he made his camino right where he was. Fate intervened and he did end up in Spain and in many other places, but the point is, he made his camino where he was. (Note: Annie became my hero when I saw her in Six Ways to Santiago, another wonderful documentary film. That I get to know and interact with her online is a gift.)

That is where any transformational journey will begin. You don’t need to go anywhere special or buy anything particular, but an open heart, a willing heart, and a mind to match are helpful. If you lack those things as I did, the old fake it until you make it rule can apply. Resistance can, like an ugly old bulb thrown in the ground to freeze in the dark of winter, can become a most beautiful flower. So push on, because if you cannot do it in place, going to Spain ain’t gonna help!

The camino is an ongoing journey within. If you are fortunate enough to go, as I was, go. If you can go on any kind of life-changing pilgrimage, go. Whether it is in your backyard, at a retreat house, in the labyrinth at your parish or somewhere local, or just in your heart – begin. The first steps are the toughest.

And know this – once you set forth you can count on one thing for certain, the journey is never ending, infinite and full of all the grace and glory that we are willing to accept. Six years on, I am opening up to a new level of this. Let’s pray for one another that we begin and that we keep on going.

Leap!

It has been a very long time since I posted anything, but I’m still here. For some reason I am reminded of the maxim, “Leap, and the net will appear.”

Dawn in Orisson, France, September 19, 2016.

So no, I’m not planning on going anywhere, but I’m praying with the notion of what a leap might look like. What parts of my life, both practical and spiritual, might need changing up?

I’m not sure, but I am trying to listen deeply and then act in faith. It is hard to believe that 6 years ago at this time I was preparing for my Camino Santiago. Talk about a leap! With the help of God and so many others, it happened.

A poem is also on my mind, so I will share that here as well. Just in case any of us, like me, need to be reminded.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, We will fall!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

― Guillaume Apollinaire

Incarnation – Human like us, God with us

Christmas is one week away. Earlier in Advent, I offered a reflection during Evening Prayer at my parish, but never posted the text. That said, I have been praying with it, and today I feel deeply struck by the notion that our God became human. Human in the form of an infant, born of a woman. This is something I have often pondered and prayed with, but for some reason, this year it is very powerful. With that, I will share what I spoke about to our group of “evening pray-ers” during that first week of Advent. I pray that whatever you await in the birth of Christ this year, your heart opens to it widely.

Roman sarcophagus, Vatican Museum, 3rd. century – The Magi with Mary and Jesus. The inscription says “Severa, you shall live in God.”
(Severa is apparently the one originally interred there.)

In 1960, John Howard Griffin undertook a journey as a white man in the American south, as both a journalist and as a person in search of the roots of racism in America.

With the support of his wife, he began a medical regime that included ultraviolet lamps and medication. One day Griffin looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of a black man. Shocked, but determined, he continued to press on.

Knowing that the only way to truly see what life was like for African Americans in the South, he literally begins to live as one. His experiences not only confirm his thoughts, but reveal a much more dire landscape of hatred, bigotry, and prejudice aimed at people of color.

Over time – a short period of time at that – he begins to feel a sense of defeat and depression. And his understanding of “the other” in the world is deepened. His desire to heal and reconcile the disparity between races, to restore dignity and unity to all humans drove him ever onward.

Eventually violent acts are made in response to his public experiment. Threats emerge against him and his family so the point that their safety is no longer assured. Things escalate, and in the end, he flees to Mexico with his family to escape the hatred aimed at him for revealing the ugly truth about race in America.

If this story sounds familiar to you it might be because you either read the book published in 1961, or saw the 1964 film, “Black Like Me.” I remember learning about it in school. (Also see: Black Like Me, 50 Years Later and Reading John Howard Griffin’s Challenging ‘Black Like Me.‘)

The author sought to enter a very different life than the one he knew, if for no other reason to enter the identity and suffering of another. He did not have to do this – he discerned and chose to do so. It is an interesting choice and one that brings to mind the season we now occupy – Advent.

There was no compelling imperative for God to take human form. Think about it, God is God and can do whatever God wishes. Not only did God not have to take human form, but God did not have to do so as a helpless newborn. Or even simply in the womb. Think about it – it is mind blowing.

Yet that is what we await in Advent, this God-with-us-Emmanuel.

What are we to make of this? How do we deepen our faith in this totally unprecedented (despite it occurring year after year) moment?

In the book, Griffin becomes the lowliest of people – using the deeply horrific standards of his – well, our’s actually, society and culture. Essentially, that is what God does, being born to Joseph and Mary. There are many lessons for us here.

The first seems to be that we are invited to literally slip into the skin of another, another who is in a lower station of life. God slips into humanity – base as it is, and becomes one with us. God understands our daily life, our joys and our sorrows, our losses and our triumphs, more than ever by being like one of us.  Just as Griffin did with Black Americans.

Perhaps the first lesson of this is to enter the lives of other in a way that allows God to transform us. The reading from the prophet Isaiah that we heard tonight reinforces this kind of change. It says, that they “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…: That is very powerful imagery – the tools of war literally reshaped into tools of peace and good.

For us this might be a reminder that even the toughest metal can be reshaped from being a weapon of destruction and death into tool of cultivating peace and life.

Can we beat the swords of our hearts into peace by simply taking on the life of another?

God sent us Jesus in human form to show us the way, to help us to be so open to the “other” that we can be the other. And it is only in that way that true mercy and love might grow.


Second, God wants us to stop walking around living in a state of perpetual judgement, a condition I sadly know too well, but to be people with hearts that can be open with compassion for others. Especially those least like us and who seem to be the furthest from our lives. Because is that not the role of incarnation? The Christ as human in the flesh?

If we can truly walk around as the other, we begin to experience such a different way of being, such a different life. God did not start out with our petty preferences and prejudices, but God seemingly related to us in a new way because of the birth of Christ. What might we learn from doing the same?

Third, it would seem to me that to be fully loved and transformed by God, we have to make ourselves really, really small. That may be the hardest part of all, accepting that we are completely vulnerable and as helpless as a baby. No gun, no sword, no color of our own skin can change that. What we can can is this – how we experience incarnation this Christmas. Can each of us depend on God as if we are an infant? And can others depend upon us, not as God, but as those ready to love and serve them?

To do so will be to further the Kingdom, the Kingdom reborn and reborn, this Christmas and always. We have this Advent season to pray with this, to surrender, and to act. May we all use our times wisely this year.

Thirsty, so very thirsty

Today’s first reading says:
The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain,
    their tongues are parched with thirst.
I, the LORD, will answer them;
    I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.

I am not going to lie, this immediately brought my mind to the latest compilation of homilies from Clear Faith Publishing, Thirsty, And You Gave Me Drink. This collection of reflections and homilies offered by some of the best and more progressive Christians is a treasure for one’s own reflection, homiletic helpers for pastors, book clubs, Bible studies, and discussion groups. And it benefits charities that offer water aid.

It also struck me in another way, as Scripture often will do… In the dim, quiet of my morning prayer space, I thought of all the people I interact with at my workplace. The young, the old, the angry, the contented, the joyful, the mourning, the rich, the poor, the hungry. Like James Joyce once wrote of the Catholic Church, “here comes everybody.”

Like the most beautiful objects, worn from being tumbled in the sea of God’s love, they wash ashore. Maybe they need a mass card, or want to drop off a donation. Perhaps they have a question, or they are looking for a priest to bless an item or some holy water. Some come to offer their complaints and opinions, others, the majority, to offer thanks. Many come not because they worship at the Table of the Lord, but because their own tables are sparse, lacking food. Some are hucksters, some are holy, some are in between. Hopefully everyone who departs does so with something they were seeking.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with thirst?

Sea glass on the beach, Finisterre, Spain, October 2016

Almost everyone who comes to the door is thirsty for something. Not necessarily actual water, but they all long for the water of life. I’m thinking specifically of those who express their frustrations to me. These are people who are members of the community, dedicated and loyal, showing up, taking part, offering their gifts, whatever those gifts might be. Yet they thirst. Some are parched for want of a “holier’ church. Some are parched for a church that will bring back the “smells and bells” of their youth. Some want a more progressive church – you would be shocked, or maybe not, at the number of older people who tell me about their 50 year old sons and daughters with their same sex partners. And how they wish their kids felt included, because no matter how old your kids are, you want for them and you want them at the table with you.

People express their discontent with the church, perhaps because so many churches have no priest, like my workplace. Our beloved pastor died unexpectedly of a heart attack 2 months ago. I’m not ready to talk about that just yet, soon. But God’s people whisper in my ear that they feel as if the Church has abandoned us, and that the Church has burdened the priests by giving them 2 or 3 parishes. Many speak in hushed tones of married priests or women priests. Whatever it is they want, they thirst for it.

Others are simply disaffected. They have not yet returned to in person mass for various and sundry reasons, but they still feel connected – in a way. They are not sure what it is they long for, but they know their thirst is unmet.

Going back to our Isaiah reading, the point is that God knows the thirst of God’s people, and God will provide relief. That sounds nice, but what does it mean? I have a lot of thoughts about that, but for this moment, I will say this – are you thirsty? And whether or not you say yes, my next question is – can you offer someone else relief through the droplets of God’s refreshment that you possess? If in our own desperate thirsts, we can share a drop of something or another, whatever mercy or love, a listening ear or an open heart, the dynamic might suddenly shift.

We long for grand gestures, but perhaps this Advent, half over as it is, we can see the enormity of God’s love in a tiny drop of spiritual water. And in sharing it, we can bring forth the Christ we await, changing the world with every step.

Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink

I am very privileged to be a part of this ongoing project from Clear Faith Publishing. Each of our homiletic books in the Homilists for the Homeless series benefits various charities. Please take a look at our latest offering, Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink; Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C.

It is an honor to be in the same pages s so many spiritual giants. Based on the lectionary, the book includes contributors from across the Christian spectrum, including Richard Rohr OFM, James Martin SJ, Nadia Bolz Weber, Jan Richardson, Daniel P. Horan OFM, and others.

Visit the linkhttps://bit.ly/LaunchClearFaith to learn more, buy your copies, and support others!

Be Still, Cease Striving

This past weekend I was on retreat at Pyramid Life Center in Paradox, NY. Tucked into the Adirondacks, this “thin place” is a source of restoration of my soul. I took this photo when I arrived.

Our retreat director was Mary DeTurris Poust, who is many things – the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Albany, a skilled and prolific writer, a gifted yoga teacher, and more. Her website is Not Strictly Spiritual. Early in the retreat we were talking about the Psalm verse 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God. It is a favorite for many of us.

Mary then pointed us to a translation found in the NASB. That version says this, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.”

WHOA

That one really hit me hard. Cease striving? Sheesh, striving is the American way. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells them to keep striving. What’s a person to do? Thankfully we can understand this in the truly Catholic and universal matter of both/and, not only either/or.

This reminder to cease striving and/or to be still is God’s way of saying that we must stop and let God be God. Easy to say and think, but so very hard to live – at least for me.

Today I want to remember – and share – this notion when I want to push harder, insist on more, when my frustration mounts and peaks. God is in it all with me, and only God is God. We all might go more deeply into our lives of faith by taking a deep breath and being quiet. In a world that gets louder by the second, in workplaces and homes full of stress, in a time of great division, there is only one way. Know that God is God. Forever.

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Neither toil nor spin…

Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin.Matthew 6:27-28

What a great reminder as we wind down our summer (or winter for you readers below the equator) and head into another season. This rose grows in an untended and poorly managed garden bed at the back of my house. It is interesting to note that year after year, I do literally nothing to this rosebush and yet each summer it produces the most lovely blooms.

God calls us to just be and to worry not. That’s a challenge for me as worrying is deeply embedded in me. Yet as I grow older I do see the wisdom in it and I do not worry as much. Sure we all have work to do, but it is essential to remember that what we do is always in response in what God has done and is doing.

Wishing you peace and the joy of just being.

The Power Button

I know, I have not been around for awhile again! Life happens, but here I am at least for today. May this post find readers old and new doing well in these crazy days.

The topic of power is one that I think about a lot. Power is often perceived in terms like good or bad. As a culture we tend to reward and respect power, but not always good power! People amass power and often use it as a force for destruction. One need not look far – church, politics, life, any community – we can see where someone gets some power and misuses it, intentionally or not. I am not a huge Star Wars person, but I love the imagery of “the force” and how it must be used for good.

So much of our culture and society are hierarchal in nature that we often must unlearn what we have learned about power – I think that is essentially at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus was not into power for the grab, but to use the power for good to always serve others.

Currently I am listening to the podcast from Christianity Today called “Who Killed Mars Hill?” If you are unfamiliar, Mars Hill was a Seattle megachurch that began in the 90’s. It had a dramatic rise and period of growth and a hard tumble due to its leader and founder, Mark Driscoll. It is something I knew a little bit about, and I am finding that the podcast is eye opening – I recommend it.

It got me thinking about problems that we have in the Catholic church. Power is a problem here too, but that is the same in all worship congregations. Even the apostles were prone to wanting to get “the best seats.” Jesus saw otherwise and did not see a rise to power as the goal. Life given for life, death into new life – that was the thing.

When I came to work here at the church in 2008, with no church experience, a priest I knew told me that I should be cautious as I would be one of the most powerful people there. I did not believe him – but he was correct. I see that power as privilege, and I hope to never use it to harm another. My aim is to serve Christ by serving others and that means loving those who may be difficult to love, welcoming all, and making this a place people want to come to. I’m no hero, and I can be a royal pain, but I am given a lot of grace.

There are many in the church who do not intentionally misuse power – in fact they are unware of their misuse of it. Of course there are others who use it nefariously and that is a huge problem.

I’m not sure what the solution to all of this is. I am distressed by abuse of power in church but also in the world – politics in general is a power laden nightmare. But then again so is every other environment, it just might not be so visible.

Trust me I have not always used power for good. I do not believe I purposefully used it as a cudgel, but like anything, I had a lot to learn about it as I grew older and up. Maybe that is why this is such an important topic to me. What do you think about power and how do you deal with it? Both your own and the power around you? We must interact with it and I imagine that God’s ultimate kingdom is a place where total balance is present. Here, we must learn to sort it out and that is a lifelong journey. We just need to be sure that when we press our internal power button, or respond to other’s power, we are guided by good.


Thanks for reading. As usual, I will try to be back more frequently. Peace and God bless you all! If you are here for the first time due to Give Us This Day – thank you!

Resilience again

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
― Edith Wharton

This notion of resilience has taken root in me. It seems elementary, but I’m just thinking about it in a more deliberate way, trying to be more intentional about it. Years ago I was obsessed with willow trees because of their nature, which seemed resilient to me. They would bend a great deal before breaking, or so I was told. And if they did break, apparently the broken piece would take root. Did I check these facts? No – I just went with the idea of being more flexible and that when broken, taking root was always possible in order to grow new life. Very Easter-like themes from my past, but not always well applied.

Edith Wharton’s words seen at the top of the post have meant a lot to me over the years. I would like to think I am innately curious, I wish I could believe that I am unafraid of change – but like most of us, I resist it. Sure, I can put on a good show of it, but am I really open to change? Yet to be a follower of Jesus means an ongoing journey of change, transformation, that old metanoia – whether we believe we want it or need it! Change is one thing we can always count on.

Ascension is coming up this week. Here in New York we celebrate Ascension on Thursday, but many Catholic dioceses have moved it to Sunday. In 1998 I was in Los Angeles, looking for an apartment of all things, and I realized it was Ascension Thursday. Finding myself near a church, I went in to attend mass – the recording on the phone said “Holy Days at 9am and 12noon.” Sitting in the cool quiet I prayed and prayed, looked at my watch, I was waiting, but it was 12:10 and no sign of anything. A maintenance worker came through and I asked him about mass. The man looked at me and asked, why did I think it was a Holy Day? That was my first introduction to Ascension Thursday being moved on the calendar.

Me, I love this time. Ascension – Jesus ascends and the disciples remain. Can you imagine how awestruck they must have felt? He just took off and once again they were left to their own devices, with some words about the Holy Spirit. We have been building up to this in our Scripture for days now. I experience this time of waiting, this liminal space of no longer and not yet as a gift. Each year I make a novena from Thursday to Pentecost, praying for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to come. It is not like magic, the answers are not always clear, but they are always there – like Jesus on Ascension. Visible or invisible, always there.

In the meantime, I will try to keep that curiosity and flexibility thing going. Like following Jesus, it does not always make sense or come easily, but given the choices, it is the only way to go in my way of seeing things. Wharton’s words remind me of the resilience needed for the journey of every day. May we all press on in this spirit, alive in the moment, ready for what comes.

Resilience rising

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” -Acts of the Apostles 10:47

Despite being in the Easter season, I have been a bit discouraged about the state of the church. There is so much division and it is wearing me down. Yet, when I saw today’s first reading from Acts, I took heart.

Church is a field hospital, to quote Pope Francis, a place for the weary, the longing, the marginalized, the poor. Guess what, no matter our station in life, we are all of these things at various times whether we realize it or not. I’m always heartened to read this passage from Acts as a reminder that “God shows no partiality.” How could God? When I tell people that God loves each of us equally, no matter how bad we are, they often go pale and silent, or shake their heads no no no. Mostly because they feel unworthy, not because they are deeming another unworthy. I’m glad that I never fully appropriated a fear of an angry and capricious God, but I worry because so many people have done so.

Back to my field hospital imagery, I see church as a place where we come to be healed, to share, to offer ourselves completely – both at church and in life. The Eucharist is at the heart of it all, our divine nourishment. We bring ourselves as the offering as Christ has done, the broken off piece that we receive is what makes us whole and one in Christ. The dynamism always makes me tingle with excitement, even when I am at my discouraged worse! God is always waiting to feed us, tend to us, heal us, bind us up with love – no matter what. Sure we have to offer ourselves in utter vulnerability, our hearts open to reveal our wrongs that God will make right. That’s the hard part – not God.

On Saturday I was at the supermarket and ran into my former professor, friend, and priest, Richard Vosko. He lives nearby and I often see him amidst the spices or the pasta! This time he was in line ahead of me, I wasn’t sure it was him – masks! “Richard… ” I said tentatively, and he immediately said “Hello Fran!” What a delight to encounter him. He asked me how I was feel about church and I shrugged (paraphrasing here), admitting to my discouragement. Ever the people pleaser, after telling him that I still loved my job, I added that I always try to have hope.

Richard, never one to mince words, shook his head. He told me an anecdote about hope, one he has shared before – a reminder that hope is not always what is needed. Then he offered an alternative – resilience. “How about that?” he asked. Immediately I experienced an interior shift, knowing that resilience is precisely what I needed to focus on.

Trust me, I am still as Catholic as I ever was. And I do love my job, although it is exhausting as we labor on during Covid-19 and a lot of diocesan changes. As anyone who is friends with me or my spouse and daughter will tell you, I am a difficult person when I love someone or something. Critically examining everything and asking way too many questions, probing deeply. I do it to myself too. It is no different with the Church, I have issues and I discuss them with Jesus at length in prayer.

Today I awakened to a real Mother’s Day surprise. I cried when I saw what Mark and Erica had done for me. Then I went off to pray. As I did I was aware, thanks to all the moments that had preceded that one in recent days and the current moment, that it was not hope rising in my heart, but a desire for resilience. That’s what I will be praying and living with, a necessary adjustment, a refocus – a calibration actually.

My wish and prayer for you is to find resilience – or whatever you need to find, whether in nature, a pew, or even the grocery store.