How To Become a Pop Culture Mystic: Interview with Author Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP

Yesterday I had the privilege of having a conversation with Sister Nancy Usselmann, FSP, Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, about her new book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics. I hope you enjoy it!

A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is available at our online Pauline store, from the Pauline Book & Media Center nearest you, or on amazon.com.

Be a Pop Culture Mystic!

This week, I have the opportunity to interview Daughter of Saint Paul Sister Nancy Usselmann, author of the new book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural MysticsSister Nancy is director for the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, but she is here in Boston for a few weeks to prepare for our annual Christmas concerts, so I am taking advantage of her presence!

In her book, Sr. Nancy encourages us to engage with pop culture by becoming mystics: that is, to use our media experiences to recognize the beauty of God and the needs of humanity expressed by the artists of today’s culture. Much of A Sacred Look offers us a theological foundation for doing just that, and the rest of the book is a wonderful, insightful analysis of some of the most prevalent trends and popular phenomena in pop culture, ranging from TV shows such as Netflix’s controversial 13 Reasons Why, to rap music, sci-fi films, and Oscar-winning films such as The Revenant. You can read her initial interview about becoming cultural mystics here.

My plan is to post the interview up here next week. If you would like us to discuss a particular aspect of pop culture (perhaps a favorite or controversial film, song, or TV show), please feel free to send me a message here, on Facebook or Twitter, or in the  comments below, before Thursday noon (August 22nd), and I’ll see if we can get to it.

If you are in the Boston area, you may want to join Sister Nancy for her author talk/book signing on this Saturday, August 25:

 

Writing Resolutions: Be Gentler!

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I believe that writing, like the spiritual life, has seasons. And perhaps the time away from writing—which I have both regretted and worried over—has been a good thing. (God makes all things work for the good!) After all, God is the One in charge of the seasons of my life, and God has taught me so much in the intervening years! It would be such a blessing to bring those lessons into my writing—both how I write and what I write. So I’ll share here some very personal writing resolutions, as I begin writing again.

I would like…

  • to be kinder and gentler to myself as a writer: letting go of perfectionism when I’m writing rough drafts, letting go of worrying about others’ judgments, and focusing more on listening to God’s voice, to God’s invitations to express what I feel called to say, to be true to myself. (Author and writing coach K. M. Weiland, who produces one of my very favorite writing podcasts, recently released a wonderful episode/blogpost on how judgment and creativity don’t fit together.)
  • to write in a way so that communication is always more “circular”—so that readers can “talk” to me before, after, and while I write for them. I would love for our conversations to become part of each book, even before it is finished! I started trying this years ago, but now I will have the opportunity to pick up that project and complete it!
  • to forge a new relationship with writing: letting go of any guilt when important commitments prevent me from writing, but also not being afraid or apologetic to set writing as a priority. For almost five years, I set writing aside for other (important) matters. Now, I am able to make it one priority among many. I don’t want to feel guilty either for writing (which I used to) or for not writing (which I have also been carrying).
  • to simply enjoy the gift that writing is—to me, and I hope through me, to others. Mother Paula, the sister who brought our congregation here in North America in 1932, used to talk about the new titles we published as being “babies.” And I really feel that way about the books that I write. Every book is an intense labor of love, but each book truly comes to life only when it enters into the lives of its readers…and makes a difference in those lives. I believe that the Lord has a plan for each book, each article, and from now on, I intend to simply follow where the Lord leads.

I’ll start back here blogging very simply, sharing favorite authors, blogposts, and articles about writing, spirituality, artistic practice and the spiritual life. The first resource I’d like to mention is from Sister Nancy Michael Usselmann, FSP, who just published her first book, A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics—Theology of Popular Culture, in which she encourages us to become pop culture mystics. I’ll review it soon, and perhaps interview her here. If you have any questions for her, send them in and I’ll ask her!

Do you have a topic that you’d like me to write about on Windows to the Soul? Please post something in the comments below, send me an email, or respond on Facebook. (I am gradually organizing the various social media platforms that I am on so that I can respond in a timely (!) fashion to Facebook and others, and I look forward to many fruitful conversations!)

Above all, know that I keep you—every reader—in my prayers, carrying you in my heart to Jesus in the tabernacle during my daily Hour of Adoration. God bless you!

Do You Have a “Word” for 2018?

2018 has been filled with the unexpected so far—from new projects to my catching the flu. Because of this, I took a couple hours to brainstorm for a way to re-balance my writing life (and a couple other aspects of my life that I have ignored or not given enough time to). I was delighted to figure out a way to slow down and get back to a regular writing schedule.

One creative way of starting off a new year is to pick a word as a theme for the year. Every new year, I see more people picking their “word” for the year–have you? It’s better yet to notice a word that has “picked you,” especially when the word is from the Scriptures. I have never done this for a whole year, but during every monthly retreat, I try to pick a verse or phrase from the Bible that will inspire me for the whole month.

This year, however, a word “picked me,” as I was praying with the Gospel of John and I thought that I would share it with you. The word is: “Behold.”

According to an online site hosting the RSV translation, “behold” is used in the Bible over 1000 times (1134), and in the NABRE, “behold” is in that translation 104 times. Behold is a wonderful word for the spiritual life and for art, because it encourages us to really look, to see below the surface, to notice those telling details that allow us to appreciate more fully the sacred in our life. (And isn’t that what art is all about—helping us to see?)

The Gospel of John takes its use of the word a step further, encouraging us to go even deeper. The author of John uses “Behold” specifically to invite us to perceive the upside-down-ness of God at work in the world: this Gospel uses “behold” only when speaking of something that upsets human expectations.

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1) is the context in which the word first “picked” me. And what is more of a paradox than this image of the Lamb of God? The Son of God who is perfect, pure, sinless, innocent, almighty, infinitely good and beautiful, being called a lamb in reference to being offered in sacrifice? We know that many of the Israelites assumed that the Messiah would be a powerful earthly leader but the calls him “the Lamb of God.”

In John 17, Jesus uses this term to speak about his glory, which will be his offering of himself on Calvary in order to save humanity.

In John 19, Pilate tells the crowd to behold their “King,” as a way to mock Jesus—but unknowingly he speaks the truth about the King of all humanity, the King of love who will give his life for us. Also in John 19, Jesus gives Mary and John new identities: Mary becomes the mother of John, and John becomes Mary’s son. We know that here, too, we need to look deeper. Jesus is doing more than entrusting his widowed mother to the care of a young man. He is asking Mary to become the Mother of the Church, and he sees in John the beginning of the Church.

In giving me this word, I feel Jesus inviting me to be more attentive to him in my daily life, to let go of my own agenda and assumptions that are blocking my vision or preventing me from hearing his gentle invitations to do his will.

Long walks has always been a cherished form of exercise for me. At one point, I decided to take up jogging: I could fit more exercise into less time; it was even better for my health than walking, etc. I never became very good at it, but stuck with it for a couple of years. Then one day I went for a long walk. And I realized how much I missed walking. When I jogged, I went too fast to notice everything around me—the flowers, the birds, the color of the sky, etc.—all those things that I enjoyed so much when I walked.

This year, I plan to walk—not jog—through each day. I want to pay attention to the things both great and small in my life that I often ignore or forget about. For me, first of all this means that I need to pay attention to what is going on inside of me—my thoughts and feelings—and then, the people and circumstances around me. For some insight, I am reading a lovely small new book by Frederich Buechner entitled, The Remarkable Ordinary.

My desire to live more contemplatively has been unexpectedly reinforced by  one of our sisters—who is also a dear friend—who spent these first days of 2018 in the hospital and is now in hospice. The smallest details become so significant in these precious days with her—making sure she is comfortable, offering her both the closeness of accompaniment but also the spiritual “space” to prepare herself for heaven. This sister is teaching me how to “behold” God’s presence and blessing in a deeper way, both throughout her life and the years that I have known her, and in these cherished days of her journey to her heavenly homeland.

If you’d like, please share your “word for 2018” in the comments below, or on Facebook!

Discerning Our Use of Media

06U pexelsI’m re-posting this from my blog-to-book, Co-Author Your Life with God Blog.

Another obstacle to deeper listening that is particular to our times is the constant blitz of media messages that is almost impossible to avoid. Cell phones that are always on mean that anyone with our number (such as our boss) always has a way to reach us; having a smart phone or computer means that we can check our email not just twice but twenty or thirty times a day; engaging with social media like twitter or instagram means that constant interruptions in our day, our lives, and even our conversations, has become the norm; advertisements, which serve not our needs but the greed of unbridled capitalism, continue to deceive, invade, and intrude into our every day life. Media are widely misused in ways that undercut the dignity of its viewers and listeners, presenting people as commodities to be used, rather than as sacred persons created in the image of God. Many media messages today promote revenge, violence, hatred, lust, materialism, prejudice, error, illusions about happiness, and sensationalism. The constant availability of entertainment online, and the growth of tablets, wi-fi, and internet access, means we can constantly gratify our desire to be entertained because we are not limited to reading the books on our bookshelf. Even music on our cell phones can limit our connection to self by filling our walking silence or daily drives with music. Digital media “fill the cracks” or spaces in our lives that used to be free for reflection, silence, or just being present to one’s self.

As a Daughter of Saint Paul who is blogging a book about discernment and occasionally tweets about it, I don’t just enjoy digital technology and the possibilities that the internet offer for connection. I value the media in general and digital media in particular for the ways they help us to connect with one another, build up the solidarity of the human community, and for their potential for evangelization. The media are awesome avenues where God’s grace can reach people in ways both new and old! But for me personally, the key to how I choose to use the media is being mindful about it—in a way that assists my prayer life,  discernment, and relationships, rather than becoming obstacles to them.

Especially as an introvert, I easily become scattered or distracted if I have constant “noise” in my life. I couldn’t possibly make the time to use every form of media available to me. Every form of media, and each social network I join, is for a specific purpose that I have prayed about. I really to regularly discern my use of media, which is an integrated part of my day and often part of my relationships. But I’m also not afraid to disconnect: I turn off my cell phone when I enter the chapel for adoration or Mass, and keep it off during my retreats, whether they’re monthly one-day retreats or annual eight-day retreats.

Here are a few questions that I ask myself about daily priorities that are helpful in thinking about my use of media from within the context of daily life:

  • Am I always “online” or “connected” all day long, every day? Every evening? Seven days a week? How often do I give myself breaks from the frequent interruption or stimulation provided by the smartphone?
  • How much silence do I need or want every day or every week to be able to pray, to remain aware of my own thoughts and feelings, to be “at my best”? (This answer varies widely according to individuals.)
    • Do I feel my life is in balance, that I give the most attention to the most important people and parts of my life?
    • Where (and with whom) do I want to spend more time?
    • Where (or with whom) do I want to spend less time?
  • How do I choose to spend my time: with God, with family and loved ones, with work, with myself (including silent time taken to nurture myself and to relax).
  • How do I use various media at home, at work, in my relationships and throughout my day? What purpose does each form of media serve in my life? What purpose do I want each form to serve?
  • Smart phone
    • Calls
    • Texts
    • Messages
    • Retrieving information
    • Apps
    • Podcasts
  • Social media (go through each platform I use, whether on my computer and/or smartphone)
  • Music
  • TV/internet streaming/movies
  • Video games
  • Any other computer use: surfing, chat, research, etc.
  • How can I see using each form of media to help me grow in my relationship with God, with myself, and with others? Do I need to make changes, set limits, or add media to my life in order to live God’s invitations? (e.g. How often do I check my Twitter feed? Two of my favorite podcasts help me to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, or reflect on or pray with Sunday’s Scripture readings. Two of my  most-used apps is the Catholic News Agency and the Pope App, which keep me informed about religious issues, and also give me endless prayer intentions. Or, in my love for film, do I balance what I watch: occasionally a popcorn flick, often an independent film that is spiritually enriching or helps me understand certain issues. Some people give up Facebook or movies for Lent. Others don’t check their email over the weekend or in the evenings.)

How do you use media to assist you in your spiritual life? I’d love to hear your thoughts about how using the media and technology in your daily life affects your spiritual life, and how your relationship with God affects your use of media.

Twitter share of quote from Soul of Christ

Sharing from my new book, Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayer

Kicking off new discernment blog-to-book tomorrow!

CoAuthorBannerOriginalOn Tuesday, November 25th, I’m kicking off the new blog-to-book: CoAuthor Your Life with GodThis blog is a joint collaboration between two departments within the Pauline Books & Media publishing house to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life, which runs from the First Sunday of Advent, the weekend of November 29th, to February 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life. Our goal in creating a new blog (and eventually a book, God willing!) is to support anyone interested in growing in the spiritual art of discernment–in other words, letting the Holy Spirit take the lead in our lives! In a special way for this YCL (Year of Consecrated Life), we want to support those who are discerning their vocations to religious life. 

At the new CoAuthorYourLifewithGod.com, those who are discerning will be able to find resources to help them grow in the spiritual art of discernment, have their questions answered, and even learn about discernment from some mainstream movies!

DiscernItCroppedAdIn addition to CoAuthorYourLifewithGod.com, the Pauline Sisters are also releasing a free app for discernment for both iPhones and Android phones. The new Discern It! App encourages young people to pray about all the states in life, including religious life, as part of their vocational discernment, and to take a step forward during in trusting the Lord during the Novena, as they continue to discern God’s will for their lives. The Discern It! App also has some lovely audio reflections on how to discern by Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis.