Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Meditation

Thankfully, there are those in the world who can say things much better than we might be able to say ourselves. It's as if they reach into the deeper parts of who we are and gradually draw into the open ideas and connections that shine and shout in the light of day. And reading their words is an experience akin to stepping outside of a small tent in the middle of night on a vast open plain and beholding the stars right there above you.... immediately accessible, mystifyingly silent, and all too real.

I think that this is why Christmas is so evocative for all of us. The small is really large, the humble is really great, and the child is really God.

Anthony Bloom is someone whose words often have this effect on me. While deceased, his sermons and talks continue to be available online. I really like what he has to say about Christmas and would like to share some of that with you today.

On the day when we remember the Nativity of Christ, the Incarnation of the Son of God, we can see that the beginning of a new time has come, that this world that had gone old because God was, as it were, far away from it - great, awe-inspiring but distant, had come to an end. GOD IS IN OUR MIDST: this is the meaning of the word ‘Emmanuel’; God with us - and the world is no longer the same. We live in a world into which God has come, in which He is the living power, the inspiration, Life itself, Eternity itself …

Yes, we are waiting for the day when God will come in glory, when all history will be up, when all things will be summed up, when God shall be all in all; but already now God is in our midst; already now we have a vision of what each of us is by vocation and can be by participation. But this is an offer; God gives His love, God gives Himself - not only in the Holy Gifts of Communion, but in all possible ways He is ready to enter into our lives, to fill our hearts, to be enthroned in our minds, to be the will of our will, but to do that, to allow Him to do that we must give ourselves to Him, we must respond to love by love, to faith - the faith which God has in us - by faith that is trust and faithfulness to Him. And then - then, we, each of us singly and all of us in our togetherness, will become God's Kingdom come with power, the beginning of the fullness of time, the beginning of the glorious victory!

Isn't that something which is worth struggling for? Isn't it worth turning away from everything that separates us from our own integrity, from one another, from God, and allow ourselves to become new creatures?

Let us now, now that the beginning has come, and in a way the end is already in our midst, let us do it: overcome all that is unworthy of ourselves and allow God victoriously to transfigure our lives!

Glory be to God for His love! Glory be to God for the faith He has in us, and for the hope He has put into us! Amen!

Words worth pondering.

On a more prosaic note, for those who would like to see my Christmas newsletter (text and pictures), I've uploaded it here.

May you have a wonderful holiday!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mary Connection

There is one person in the church's canopy of saints who continues to baffle me. This is not because this person is strange or odd, in the usual meaning of these words. Rather, it has more to do with wonder, invitation, and even personal challenge. The person, as you probably already guessed from the picture, is Mary, the mother of Jesus.

As we get closer to Christmas, not only do we celebrate significant Marian feasts (Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.), but we are inundated with images of Mary and Jesus as a child or baby; cards received in the mail, stamps on letters, programs on television, book covers, etc. The image of Mary is probably the second most prevalent one during this season, after Santa and the reindeer, and her story is just as murky and yet fascinating. The major difference is that one is a man who is the artificial, seasonal personification of goodness and grace (gift), and the other is a woman who is the real thing, the actual person whose goodness and grace opened the door for God's indwelling mystery.

Following up on my last blog entry about the "point" being the acquisition of the Spirit of God, Mary popped into my mind when I read a quotation related to that "point" from Meister Eckhart shortly thereafter, near the Feast of the Immaculate Conception: " If someone were to ask me: why do we pray, why do we fast, why do we perform our devotions and good works, why are we baptized, why did God, the All-Highest, take on our flesh? Then I would reply: in order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God. That is why the whole of Scripture was written and why God created the whole world and all the orders of angels: so that God could be born in the soul and the soul in God."

That dynamic, of the soul being born in God and God in the soul, gives a hint as to what "The Immaculate Conception" might truly mean. The very popular misconception that the term refers to the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not through natural means is regrettable. It's got nothing to do with Jesus, yet. It has everything to do with Mary. God's "vessel" - and not just physically, or even primarily - would be suffused with God's presence, with the Holy Spirit. In order for God's life to be made real in our strange, often confusing, and certainly mysterious world, God's presence is first manifest in a woman's willingness to BE "the handmaid of the Lord." Hence the critical piece of the annunciation.

Fred Buechner in his book The Faces of Jesus really says it best for me:

The angel says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” He tells her not to be afraid because the floor has failed her and the sheltering wall no longer gives her shelter; not to be afraid because most of what is familiar to her has faded and flaked away like a painting. Heaven has flooded in. And heaven kneels before her now with outstretched wings. But she is not to be afraid. She is not to be afraid of all that lies beyond her: a lonely birth on a winter’s night, a child she was never to understand and who never had time to give her much understanding, the death she was to witness more lonely and more terrible than the birth. “Behold,” the angel says, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Behold. He is asking her to open her eyes. . . . Mary pondered these things in her heart, and countless generations have pondered them with her. Mary’s head is bowed, and she looks up at the angel through her lashes. There is possibly the faintest trace of a frown on her brow. “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?” she asks, and the angel, the whole Creation, even God himself, all hold their breath as they wait for what she will say next. “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she says, and jewels blossom like morning glories in the arch above them. Everything has turned to gold. A golden angel. A golden girl. They are caught up together in a stately, golden dance. Their faces are grave. From a golden cloud between them and above, the Leader of the dance looks on. The announcement has been made and heard. The world is with child.

Wonder, invitation, and personal challenge. All these are part of what I imagine Mary dealt with in her dance with God - her vocation, if you will. Fred's words highlight the fact that it was through her response that new life came to be, that God freely became human. I imagine that it is also through our responses, in normal daily circumstances, that God comes to dwell in our midst and that of others. The same dynamics of wonder, invitation, and personal challenge are at play.

Do I really understand it? No.

Do I need to fully need to understand it? No.

Does it invite me to wonder and personal challenge? Yes.

That's enough for now. I don't think I'm ready for anything else.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's the Point?

What is the aim of our Christian life? Is it to do good works, to save ourselves, to reach “enlightenment” of some kind, or perhaps all three? Do we pray, go to church, follow the commandments and the like for our own benefit or for the benefit of others? It’s really too easy to say “both” isn’t it? Or shouldn’t we think too much about these things because the answers are beyond us?

I read an insightful and wise answer to this question recently, from an orthodox monk named Seraphim (1759-1833) who lived most of his life in seclusion. He told one pilgrim who came to him, “However prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God… [O]nly good deeds done for Christ’s sake bring us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. … Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.” (On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, by Saint Seraphim of Sarov)

Two clear distinctions seem to be made here, one between doing things for others and doing things for oneself (Why should I put acquiring the Holy Spirit above helping others?), and the other between doing things simply because they’re good and doing things because they are done for and in Christ (What difference does it make why I do something good?). In each case, the more challenging answer increasingly makes more sense to me.

Doing something for others depends almost entirely on who I am and how I have fed my soul. Many is the time when simple reluctance (the sin of omission?) has prevented me from doing a clear good for someone else. Those who spontaneously help others do so, it appears, because that’s who they are and that’s what they do, or that’s how they’ve shaped themselves to be. I remember a story about Dr. Albert Schweitzer arriving at a train station in Europe to give a talk, when he was elderly and famous. Coming out of the carriage, a welcoming crowd greeted him, a band played a tune, flowers were given, and he was escorted down the platform by an entourage. On the way, he spotted a woman with a heavy load of luggage getting off the train some distance away and struggling to get it all together. He immediately extricated himself from his entourage, much to their discomfort, rushed to the woman and helped carry her luggage to the street and one of the taxis there. When asked why he did this, he said: “I’m just having my daily fun.” He was the kind of person for whom helping others brought joy. He couldn’t not have done it; it was part of his vocation, who he was. And so doing certain things for oneself – training the self, as it were, towards virtue and justice and the doing of good things – is critical for the very possibility of actually and really doing good for others. Otherwise, it’s all just a head trip. When the two, “for self” and “for others”, are in right alignment, then both have a chance of really kicking in and moving forward.

I think that it’s a similar situation with doing good things for Christ’s sake instead of some other reason, only this one goes to a deeper and less obvious level. Doing something good for another is a fine thing, and that’s that. There’s certainly nothing wrong in it. The people that stand out – perhaps the Saints, one might say – are those for whom such actions are not only natural, as was the case for Dr. Schweitzer, but also those who are clearly tapping into a deeper, less obvious reality. They’re about “more” than simple humanitarian aid, and they don’t care who knows it, or who doesn't know it. It's part of an internal equation, not an external one. They don’t pay much attention to how others might react to their deeds of goodness, except perhaps insofar as others might be drawn to Christ. Witness the usual suspects (Saint Francis, Mother Teresa, MLK, JPII, DLS, etc.) and, more importantly, unknown others that have touched our lives, such as my great-aunt in Holland, whom I only knew as a child but who is still remembered for her kindness, her giving nature, her smile, and her uncomplicated and simple holiness, absolutely fitting to who she was. We all know such people, and they’ve burrowed into our souls. They’ve shown what “for Christ’s sake” really means for them, and by their very lives they invite us to consider what we might discover/reach for ourselves if we pay attention. Take the chance to start paying serious attention to Scripture readings in church and things will start bubbling all over. No wonder Annie Dillard recommended that Christian churches install seat belts in the pews.

John Main in Silence and Stillness in Every Season writes: “In our modern world we easily forget that we have a divine origin, a divine source, and that this unifying incandescent energy of our own spirit emanates from the Spirit of God.” The Kingdom of God is within you.

One last story; I can’t resist. For the Easter play at a kindergarten, all the costumes had been passed out (soldiers, disciples, crowd, etc.) and one little boy who wanted to be soldier had no costume at all. The clever teacher said: “I know, Johnny. You can be the boulder in front of the tomb. You stand in front of the tomb, and when Easter morning comes, you rooooll out of the way.” After practicing this for several days, the day of the play came and suddenly a soldier’s costume became available. The teacher hurried to Johnny and told him that he could now play a soldier. But Johnny said that he didn’t want to play a soldier anymore. He liked being the rock in front of the tomb. When the teacher asked him why, Johnny said, “Because it feels so good to let Jesus out.”

That’s the Holy Spirit for you. And that’s the point.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on Newman & Conscience

With the recent beatification of John Henry Newman in England, I've been reading a number of articles that highlight his writings and thoughts. These articles, unsurprisingly, have been most predominant in an English Catholic publication called The Tablet, which I personally find to be the best Catholic weekly published in English.

The part of Newman's thought that is probably most relevant today has to do with this strange piece in our makeup called our conscience; "...a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion, or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others ... I am insisting ... that it commands, that it praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen." Pretty well put, I should think. He says that conscience is a person's own best self. Someone "has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it."

Vatican II and subsequent church documents likewise say that the conscience is a person's "most secret core and sanctuary ... There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths". (Try to see beyond the "he" and "him" parts of these quotations.)

One might easily mistake this notion of personalism (the firm bedrock of a person's faith on that conscience-bound, intimate relationship with God) with the notion of individualism (the more arbitrary principle that a person should be free to decide whatever he/she wishes). The current pope, in a talk before he became pope, wrote: "Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices - the exact opposite is the case."

So conscience is that which drives us to be bound to the truth that lies inside, outside, and around us; the truth that really should shape the substance of who we are. As William O'Malley, SJ, said in a workshop to our religion teachers many years ago, "I try to teach my students that the tree comes to me. I don't tell the tree what it is. I let it tell me what it is." And when you think about it, that's the case also for most everything else. But there's that little thing called the ego that sort of gets in the way.

So perhaps it makes good sense that the Founder advised his Brothers not to get too involved in the religious controversies of the day, but rather to know what the church was teaching and to follow that. This may not be popular in contemporary culture, but I now see it as a pretty good bet, all things considered. Today we would say that he urged them to have an "informed conscience", based on the accumulated insight and experience of the church and the Holy Spirit active within it.

Now I know that in recent times the church hasn't enjoyed much positive press, but in a sense it was ever thus. God knows (literally) how the church as an organization has survived longer than any other human institution in history. That's got to say something, along with the fact that there is no army or police force or similar "worldly" means for exerting its authority, although other dynamics are in play. But that's another topic for another day.

All I know right now is that if conscience is as key to human integrity as others say, then it's pretty clear that one should pay attention to its care and feeding. Reading, reflection, prayer, relationships, and the like all play a part, if we want our best selves to take the lead. Real life takes work, especially the life of the soul.

We have to water that tree. (I took the above picture yesterday, as I was walking. Now I know why.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Starting Over (Again)

One way of knowing if you should go back to doing something that takes some effort and that you stopped doing is that it keeps popping back into your mind, not as something that you're glad you stopped doing, but rather as something that you probably should still be doing. It's apparently a manifestation of our human condition, whereby the drive to virtue, or duty, or the pursuit of what's good and worthwhile when it comes to your talents and interests, even if time-consuming and hard to maintain, edges us forward in almost indiscernable ways until a tipping point is reached and we go "Okay already!"

Today is one of those tipping point days. It's been too long since my last confession.... uhhh, I mean entry.

There are lots of things that I would like to think about and think through when it comes to the world of Lasallian life, and this is as good a place as any to do so. The fact that such thinking and reflection is done in a public forum is not done to feed the ego (at least that's my hope and perhaps personal deception) but rather to keep my reflections focused to some extent. It's a bit more daunting to write in a blog than it is to write in a personal journal. You have to keep your grammar in check, at the very least, and you have to be somewhat circumspect because what you write will have a long live in cyberspace.

The other thing encouraging this re-adventure is the fact that, few as they are, several former readers have urged me to do so. So I guess that it's a part of what my ministry should include, insofar as I've always admired De La Salle's openness to doing those things that others asked him to do.

I won't commit to daily or weekly entries; just as they occur along the journey.

Thought for today: In my class with the novices yesterday on the life of the Founder, I was once again struck by his style of leadership among the motley crew that he'd gathered around himself. His leadership was based on kindness, on listening a lot, on communicating candidly but gently, and on a whole bunch of prayer. He didn't look for leadership, but others readily bestowed it on him. I think this was primarily because they knew that they would be safe within his arms, as it were.

Sounds like some of the psalms, doesn't it?

Friday, January 29, 2010

What "Vocation" Is All About

Among the majority of folks, especially older Catholics, the word "vocation" conjures up either a blank stare or some vestige of notions revolving around nuns in highly-starched habits and priests delivering a homily, complete with stories and smiles. In popular parlance, the word was associated with a decidedly religious, and hence curiously off-putting, way of life. To "have" a vocation meant becoming a religious or a priest, and that's it. Life gone. Fun gone. "Yes, that word" gone. You might as well have moved to Mars, as far as most people were concerned. It was that mysterious and different and strange.

Unfortunately, not much was done to disabuse folks of that notion, at least as far as I can tell. These "vocation" people were generally held up as special, dedicated, and generous folks who did something that, yes, was mysterious and different and strange, but also seemed quite a bit adventurous, novel, and even exciting in some odd way. So in the balance of things, a "vocation" was generally admired among Catholics and some others. It was something that just didn't apply to run-of-the-mill people.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church speaks about four vocations in life - four ways of life that invite you into a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ and those around you. These are, in no particular order, the priesthood, marriage, the single life, and religious life. Each is an authentic vocation in the Church, and there are saints in each category to prove it. (So there!)

On the other extreme, the word in popular parlance has taken on a more pedestrian notion that's associated with simplicity, utility, and the practical arts. We hear about vocation training, vocational schools, and vocation therapy. Here the word is associated with fixing cars, becoming an electrician or plumber, and doing whatever training is necessary for someone to get a good job.

Wouldn't be nice if those two notions could meet in the middle, which is probably where the real meaning of the word belongs? A vocation involves both an adventure or mystery and an ability to do all the practical work necessary to make it a reality. There's a deep and strange aspect to it, and there's a very real training that's necessary for it be a "good job."

Indeed, those who have thought and written about the notion of "vocation" have come up with some fine definitions. The most popular is the one by Fred Beuchner, who writes that a vocation is "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." My personal favorite is the one by Albert Schweitzer - no slouch when it comes to the vocation area - who calls a vocation "a duty undertaken with sober enthusiasm." You may recall that he put his vocation on steroids, becoming both a brilliant organist, Bach scholar, biblical scholar, minister, physician, and finally missionary in Africa. One book says that vocation is not just holding on. The commitment holds you. "You can't not do the work." Schweitzer did that several times over. If he'd been a Catholic, he'd probably be a saint (which he no doubt was anyway).

At a recent retreat that we held at our camp at the Russian River for 11 young women from our various high schools (we hold one for young men in the Fall) on the topic of discerning one's vocation in life, each person was asked to come up with his/her own definition. After thinking about it, my definition for vocation was this: "That which draws out your best and feeds your joy." It's something akin to the one given by a religious sister to a group of students to whom we were speaking. She said that you have to find that way of life where you can best love and be loved.

Not a bad set of statements to invite folks to look more deeply into who they are and may become.

But you have to do it to choose it. And others have to see it to be it.

God dwells in the middle of the doing of it, and that's where His presence is found. So when you see something good that needs to be done, it's a vocation invitation. When you feel drawn to a begin something that helps others, that's also a vocation invitation. When despite the drudgery and work, you feel fine doing a certain kind of work, that's a vocation in action. You get the idea.

Each of our lives can be a fine illustration of a vocation in action. Among those who are prime examples of this - without the starched linen outfit but with the singular mystery of a religious vocation - is Mother Teresa. Her invitation to stretch one's vocation applies to us all.

"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."

And Mother Teresa's definition of vocation is one of the best:

"Wherever God has put you, that is your vocation. It is not what we do, but how much love we put into it. We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not there, I think the ocean would be less by that missing drop. We don't have to think in numbers. We can only love one person at a time, serve one person at a time."

This is a good place to stop and simply let our vocation be.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Traveling Observations

When you're traveling, you venture beyond the realm of the familiar, the expected, and the "usual suspects." Without really thinking much about it, the world is now different on a regular basis. It's all rather fascinating, really, which is probably why people generally enjoy traveling - as a condiment in life and not its main event.

A Chinese priest I once knew, who was a brilliant translator and scholar but somewhat out of it in other areas of life, gave me a great insight many years ago. Every day, for years on end, he would travel the same route between where he lived and where he taught; that is, until they took his driver's license away because he was such a lousy driver. (Parenthetically, I'd read that insurance companies profiled "bad" drivers according to who they were and what they drove, and since this priest was an Asian religious driving a red, convertible sports car, he hit full marks across the board as the poster-boy for who not to insure.) I asked him once if he didn't get bored on that drive, and he said that he would never be bored. Each time he traveled that same route, he would intentionally find something new to see, notice, or pay attention to. And so each journey became a new little adventure of discovery. Traveling was an opportunity for learning, especially when doing so on a familiar route. I suppose that this was simply his scholarly disposition coming to the fore. Scholars essentially do that, paying close attention to something at once familiar, mysterious, and potentially surprising. Sharing it with others is just the icing on the cake.

Having done a bit of traveling about recently, certain things have grabbed my attention. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

1) It’s funny what people eat. Several times someone would walk by, clutching a bottle of water in one hand and a candy bar or bag of chips in the other. Or in a food line, a person would insist on a diet drink while carrying a tray filled with nothing but junk food. Sort of reminds me of the comic who said that he was on three diets at the same time…. He couldn’t get enough to eat with just one diet.

2) It’s funny how people pray. Rarely do you see a person in public pray over their meal before starting to eat. And if they do so, it’s usually done furtively and with small gestures. If you’re going into a church or temple, then it’s okay to pray. But if it’s a public space, then you have to be pretty committed to do so. Recently, I came out of my hotel room and went to the elevator halfway down the hall in order to take it down to the main lobby. When I turned into the small waiting area, I noticed a man in the far corner of the area on his knees looking for something under the table that stood there against the corner wall. Just as I was going to ask him if he needed help, he raised his body back up so that he was sitting upright on his knees, facing the corner. It was then that I realized that he was Muslim and that he was doing one of his five daily prayers, quietly but semi-publicly, and he was facing Mecca. I don’t know if I could do something like that. The assumption in the U.S. of separation between church and state makes it simply awkward to publicly pursue religious practices or attitudes, even if we proclaim religious liberty. Many years ago, G. K. Chesterton said it well: "Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it."

3) It's funny how people drive. In almost all highway driving situations, the slow lane is the fast lane and vice versa. I’ve tested this theory on a number of occasions and it is almost always perfectly true. It helps to know if there’s a major off-ramp ahead, because then the second lane is better. But in most cases, your best bet for a faster journey is to stick to that slow lane. Similarly, I now classify cars that pull up behind me on a wide highway as either "dolphins" or "donkeys." Those who are dolphins figure out how to pass me and do so rather quickly, and those who are donkeys just tailgate forever, even if both side lanes are wide open, waiting for me to move over so that they can go straight ahead. You can imagine which species I prefer.

4) It's funny how people behave. If you’re friendly towards strangers that you meet, they will be friendly in return 90% of the time. This ranges from those met professionally to the providential encounter with a salesperson, or a waitress, or someone on the street begging for money. People essentially want to be “seen” or recognized. Adding a measure of humanity to the encounter provides the kind of grace and depth that, while perhaps momentary, is nevertheless more significant than either person realizes.

5) It's funny how people change through technology. The cell phone may both deepen and avoid human relationships. Lots of people that I hear speaking on cell phones, especially if they’re talking to a family member, speak with real animation (even quite loudly, as if they’re in another world and they don’t know that anyone else can hear them). Their personality shines out in all its splendor. But as soon as that cell phone conversation ends, the mask is on and Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. Even if you were to try to have a friendly conversation with them, it’s as if the need for it or the talent for it are no longer as necessary as they might have been before cell phones. Now an intimate conversation is only a phone call away, and even as that genuine self-revelation is publicly on display, the talent to do also distances itself further and further from here-and-now opportunities to meet someone new. It’s much more quiet in airport lounges than it used to be, except for the cell phone conversations.

Everyone has his/her own stories and observations about what’s going on around them. These are just a couple of things that have struck me. I don’t quite know what to do about them, but it seems good that at least I’m paying attention, or trying to.