Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Endings and Beginnings

A Möbius strip is a simple and fascinating figure that connects two ends of a rectangular strip in such a way that there is only a single edge and a single side. As we get to the end of a school term, and as I end my two years in Singapore, it’s an appropriate image for illustrating the integration of ends and beginnings. We might see some things as ending and others as beginning, but actually the whole of life is one unbroken reality, as mysterious as it is obvious.

One example of this is found in the making of major decisions in life. Those who get married or commit themselves to a particular way of life think that they are limiting their options, ending their freedoms, and restricting their future choices. Yet those who fully engage new life realities in their major decisions discover that their options have widened, their freedoms have increased, and their choices have become much more meaningful. (My Singapore fling is just one such example.)

Richard Niehaus once wrote that “we act in the courage of our uncertainties.” The word decide comes from the Latin decider, “to cut off.” In deciding “you have cut off the alternatives and pray you have decided rightly. But you do not know for sure. Or else you are trapped in the tangled web of indecision. He then quotes 1 Cor 4:3-5 “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. … Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” When we make a choice, we enter a depth dimension of life and open up a whole new web of possibilities, previously unseen and unknown. It’s only later that one can say: “That was the best decision I ever made.”

The fact is that one’s interests, priorities, and values emerge in whatever choice is made in life. Gradually, these come to the fore and either colour or hijack the particulars of your life such that the inner core of your soul’s interest – otherwise known as your vocation – emerges to blossom in the soil where it finds itself planted. So there is little to worry about in this respect. Make the decisions that you are invited to make, respond to the people and situations that invite your response, and step into that uncertain future with a core confidence, one that becomes more real and steady as it is expressed and lived out. But keep feeding the soul.

I keep only one little sign on my desk. It is one that I found in a small shop years ago and that I still find meaningful. It reads “What would you start to do if you knew that you could not fail?” This is the sort of sentiment that invites engagement, the doing of things. Because it is only in the doing that you can set the conditions for your future positive decisions. You cannot see around the corner, but you can get yourself to the corner so as to see what lies beyond. This approach is particularly helpful in difficulties, as expressed in one of my favorite poems and hymns: “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, // Lead Thou me on! // The night is dark, and I am far from home // —Lead Thou me on! // Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see // The distant scene—one step enough for me.” (John Henry Newman)

Ends and beginnings are two sides of the Möbius strip of life’s journey. Don’t try to peek over the edge. Instead, enjoy what is there, pursue what is important, and keep moving on.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


There is a fascinating dynamic that occurs when a group of individuals gathers for a specific purpose. The focus, direction, and purpose of the gathering create the conditions for its success. The cumulative human capacity and interests of those brought together, along with the hopes and positive intentions that they bring, set the stage for allowing the greater potential of human community (and God’s grace) to become an active and present reality. Any positive gathering of individuals brings to life this mysterious dynamic of the “more” in human relational capacity. It’s an example of God’s true presence among real people doing real things in real situations. The Golden Rule lives!

The occasion for this reflection is the upcoming feast of Pentecost, commemorating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church. It is well described by St. John Baptist de La Salle in one of his meditations: “On this day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and on all those who were gathered together with them in the large upper room. He came to bring them a new law, the law of grace and love, and poured himself out upon them like a strong, driving wind. This was to show that just as God in creating man had, as Scripture expresses it, breathed into him the breath of life, so too, in communicating a new life to his disciples to live only by grace, he breathed into them his divine Spirit to give them some share in his own divine life.” (Med.43.1)

The human basis for this festive theophany – grace builds on nature – happens any time people who have a common purpose come together. It could be a birthday celebration, a planning session, a board meeting, a wedding or a funeral, a tennis match or FIFA game, a history class or study session. Each has its own character, purpose, hopes, limitations, focus and outcomes. Sometimes we get a bit overwrought when we cannot “control” the outcome of these gatherings, and some people are more comfortable with situations that are more predictable than others. But I would submit that the most rewarding, human, and enlivening events of this sort are those which carry an edge of unpredictability to them. As C.S. Lewis observed through Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the lion who has God-like characteristics in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “He'll be coming and going. One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down - and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

The most enigmatic encounters with others and with the real circumstances of our lives are those that involve an openness to this mystery of God, such as liturgies, retreats, and faith-focused gatherings. But they also include anywhere “where two or three are gathered” in God’s name, because this is exactly where the Holy Spirit, the dynamic and active presence of the resurrected Jesus in union with the Father, is most immediately engaged. The living face of God, the Holy Spirit, is found in and through actual relationships, real encounters with real people in real circumstances. Insofar as we approach these as true encounters with God’s presence, as Jesus did, they become the spiritual raindrops that quietly ripple through our souls.

In the school setting, De La Salle highlights that we actually do that all the time, or should: “You carry out a work that requires you to touch hearts, but this you cannot do except by the Spirit of God. Pray to him to give you today the same grace he gave the holy apostles, and ask him that, after filling you with his Holy Spirit to sanctify yourselves, he also communicate himself to you in order to procure the salvation of others.” (Med.43.3)


This week, we celebrated the “Ascension of Jesus” into heaven (Luke 24:50-53 - Mark 16:19 – Acts 1:9-11), which occurred 40 days after his resurrection in the biblical narrative. It is the commemoration of the strong and long-standing belief that Jesus was fully taken up into heaven, resurrected body and all, so that the Holy Spirit might be sent “who will teach you all things.”

Back in the 1970’s I remember going to a beach in California called Goat Rock. In order to get there, you had to wind your way along the cliffsides for a time before descending to the beach itself. At one of the parking areas on top, we had stopped to watch a hang glider laboriously assemble his flimsy contraption. After about 30 minutes, he was ready, put on his helmet, strapped himself in, and waddling to the edge of the cliff stood poised, looking over the ocean ahead and the beach way below. He said: “Okay. Bye.” and then stepped out into nothing.

I had expected him to drop straight down and then rise up, like a jet taking off from a carrier. But instead something amazing happened. He hadn’t quite stepped off. He had leaned over into the wind that was coming up the side of the cliff. Then he turned the wings of the glider just so, and he rose straight up as if he were standing on an invisible elevator. The rest of us just gawked as he went higher and higher. After a while, I looked around expecting someone to say “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky?” (Luke 1:11) It was as nice an ascension as I have ever witnessed.

Who knows what the experience with Jesus was like, except for what we know from Scripture and the Church’s tradition? But if I can use that hang-glider analogy, there is an element of genuine, practical trust involved in all of this. When the young man leaned over the cliff, into the invisible wind, he placed his trust in what he knew to be true, and because he took that leap of faith, ascension happened and he was carried up by that which cannot be seen but can be felt and noticed by what it touches. Similarly, God’s grace manifested in Jesus Christ cannot be easily seen, but it is felt and experienced by its effect and impact on others, if not on oneself. The ascension teaches me to be open to God’s life, God’s breath, AKA the Holy Spirit (from the Hebrew Ruah, meaning breath or wind), to step out into God’s arms and trust the Spirit to be present, whatever the circumstances. It is that descent of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, an event that Jesus’ ascension initiated.

Anthony Bloom says it well: “We no longer know Christ according to the flesh, we do not touch Him as Thomas did, we do not hear and see Him as Apostles and the women, and all crowds of people did, but we know the Christ of the Spirit, the risen and ascended Christ, who is everywhere where two or three are gathered together, who is everywhere when a lonely soul cries for Him, when a life is being dedicated to Him. And so we are confronted with this mystery of a separation, which is a victory, a separation, which leads us to a new knowledge, to a new discovery of Christ. His Divinity is no longer veiled for us by His human presence, He is revealed to us as God resplendent not only in His Godhead but also in His humanity. And so it happens also all the time when people meet on a human level and then discover one another in the Holy Spirit, a discovery that makes humanity resplendent with eternity.”

In the end, the Ascension of Jesus is about embracing the life of God in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and being carried by his love and example into being and doing the same for one another. No hanglider or elevators are necessary. Just lean over into the life of the Holy Spirit and tilt your wings correctly.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mary - Mother of Jesus - Mother of God

Before the month of May comes to a close, it is worthwhile to provide a short reflection about Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Catholic world, the month of May is the month of Mary, during which there are special prayers and celebrations that highlight her role in the history of salvation.

Mary has become a very special figure in all of Christian religious history. She is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran. (Qs 3:42) One theologian has said that she represents the feminine face of God for many people. The one thing that the Church has strongly and regularly said is that Mary is not someone to worship; rather she is someone to emulate, to pray with in approaching God, to turn to for intercession when all else fails or seems far away. In this respect, she represents the best of “motherhood” and all that this means for people.

The biological connection between mothers and children goes far beyond the physical, even beyond the emotional. A well of deep connections and unacknowledged complexities lie beyond our grasp when it comes to our mothers. Psychologists, therapists, clergy, bar tenders, and airplane seat-mates may experience the ripples of a mother’s influence on her son or daughter. As one person once told me, “Your mother knows how to push all of your buttons because she put them there.” She knows your faults and limitations but loves you nevertheless and, for the most part, unconditionally.

One can imagine how the mother of Jesus was involved in the life of Jesus, from his birth to his death. While we don’t know the details, we know the results. Much of the personality, priorities, and passions that shaped the person of Jesus are due in no small part to his 24/7 relationship with Joseph and Mary, both during his early years, his teenage years, and his twenties. If indeed Jesus did not start his public ministry until the age of 30, he would have developed a close, mature relationship with his mother.

Therefore it is not strange that we should hold Mary in such high regard and assume that her present connection with Jesus is closer than that of anyone else. Ever since the early years of the Church, her influence has been notable, concrete, and frequent. Christians have turned to her for any need, as they would turn to their own mothers when they were young. One can try to analyze and rationalize this all day, but the plain fact may simply be that she indeed has the kind of close ongoing relationship with Jesus which allows for a different sort of intercession. There is more engaged mystery here than one can simply dismiss. Just look at the history of Marian devotions, apparitions, sayings, and all the rest.

G.K. Chesterton puts Mary in appropriate light: “When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. ... You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a newborn child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a newborn child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a newborn child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother…. The Blessed Virgin Mary is born to be Mother. The supreme consolation that Our Lady receives at the foot of the cross of her Son is the assurance that her vocation as Mother does not end with Christ’s death. The Lord commands the world, ‘Behold your Mother.’ The resurrection begins for Mary – and for us – with these words. The Blessed Virgin’s womb remains forever fruitful. Mary leads us to Christ, but Christ leads us back to his Mother, for without Mary’s maternity, Jesus would become a mere abstraction to us.”

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 3

For today’s reflection on the Catholic prayer form known as the Mass, or the Eucharist, I would like to provide a fine quotation by Ronald Rolheiser, who sums up the multi-dimensional experience of this ritual, the source of which lies outside of and beyond all of them put together.

(Rolheiser, Ronald. Our One Great Act of Fidelity, Pg. 28-29)

“Christians argue a lot about the Eucharist. What does it mean? What should it be called? How often should it be celebrated? Who should be allowed to participate fully?

“There are lots of views on the Eucharist. For some it is a meal, for others it is a sacrifice. For some it is a ritual act, sacred and set apart, for others it is a community gathering, the more mess and kids the better. For some it is a deep personal prayer, for others it is a communal worship for the world. For some its very essence is a coming together, a communion, of those united in a single denominational faith, while for others part of its essence is its reaching out, given that it contains an innate imperative to wash the feet of those who are different from ourselves. For some it is a celebration of sorrow, a making present of Christ’s suffering, the place where we can break down, for others it is a place to celebrate joy and sing alleluia. For some it is a ritual remembrance, a bringing into the present of the historical events of Jesus’ dying, rising, ascending, and sending of the Holy Spirit, for others it is a celebration of God’s presence with us today. For some it is a celebration of the Last Supper, something to be done less frequently, for others it is God’s daily feeding of his people with a new manna, Christ’s body, and is something to be done every day. For some it is a celebration of reconciliation, a ritual that forgives and unites, for others unity and reconciliation are preconditions for its proper celebration. For some it is a vigil act, a gathering that is essentially about waiting for something else or someone else to appear, for others it is a celebration of something that is already present and is asking to be received and recognized. For some it is understood to make present the real, physical body of Christ, for othes it is understood to make Christ present in a real but spiritual way. Some call it the Lord’s Supper, some call it the Eucharist, some call it the Mass. Some celebrate it once a year, some celebrate it four times a year, some celebrate it every Sunday, and some celebrate it every day. Who’s right?

“In truth, the Eucharist is all of these things, and more. It is like a finely cut diamond twirling in the sun, every turn giving off a different sparkle. It is multivalent, carrying different layers of meaning, some of them in paradoxical tension with others. There is even in scripture no single theology of the Eucharist, but instead there are various complementary theologies of the Eucharist. …

“How does one put this all together? By letting the Eucharist be patient with us. … There is no adequate explanation of the Eucharist for the same reason that, in the end, there is no adequate explanation for love, for embrace, and for the reception of life and spirit through touch. Certain realities take us beyond language because that is their very purpose. They do what words cannot do. “

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 2

This reflection follows on last week’s regarding the upcoming Founder’s Day activities, which includes a student body Thanksgiving Mass for all High School students and Catholic Elementary School students from Grades 4, 5, and 6. For a more comprehensive rationale about this, please see

“The Mass is not merely a meal which reminds us of the Last Supper, or a Passion play which helps recall Good Friday, or a Sunrise service which celebrates the Lord’s resurrection. In the Eucharist, when we recall these mysteries of redemption, ‘the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold of them and be filled with saving grace’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #102). At every Eucharist, in a real yet mystical way, we become present to these central mysteries of our Faith.“ (Thomas Richstatter, OFM)

It is important to recognize that all Christians seek to relate to, and enter into, God’s mysterious, loving, constant, and intimate presence through the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, who introduced, defined, and became “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) really and truly, actually and practically, up to today and into the future. This is crazy to some, foolish to many, incomprehensible to most, and difficult to all. But to those who have lived into this subtle yet oddly familiar mystery, this too-easily-dismissed historical conviction on the part of billions of people, the truth of God’s loving and saving presence in Jesus Christ becomes more and more firmly entrenched through the practice of reflective, genuinely engaged experience, the kind of intentional experience that the Gospels call us to again and again. The question is no longer “Is this true?” In some ways you come to realize that this is the wrong question. The question becomes “Where in my life does this remain not true?” Perhaps it is similar to what happens whenever love blossoms, when “Does she/he love me?” gradually becomes “Where or in what ways can I love her/him further?” What was first seen more in reference to self is reframed through the sometimes difficult expressions of sacrificial love into being for the most part referenced in terms of the other. Parents will know this dynamic well. God knows it best.

For Catholic Christians, the focal invitation, expression, and sustenance of this dynamic – what we call the “paschal mystery” of Jesus – is centered in the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” in Greek and refers to the ritual that through the centuries has most profoundly and best touched our inner lives in ways that are undoubtedly unique to each person who has taken its invitation to heart. Robert Taft, SJ, one of the greatest scholars of the Eucharist (the Mass), who also happens to be an Old Boy of the Brothers, summarizes things well: “The purpose of the Mass isn't to make hosts so people can go to Communion. The purpose of the Eucharist isn't to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ. It's to change you and me into Jesus Christ. That is not only supposed to happen, it's also supposed to be represented.” ( If at the end of each Mass Catholics attend, we emerged with greater conviction and ability to be more like Jesus towards others, its rationale and substance would be self-evident.

For those who may not be fully familiar with the parts of the Mass, which can certainly include many Catholics, or the reasons why this ritual has developed as it has over the last 2000 years, I have uploaded two short articles that walk through what it all means and provide a succinct summary worth reading. You may just find that this ancient yet modern ritual is more relevant than you had thought. You will certainly find it all very interesting. The link to the document is this one:

School Mass on Founders Day - Part 1

[The entry below is one that was part of the school's newsletter this year. I have left it "as is" in order to preserve its continuity with the reflections that follow.]

In a few weeks the school will be celebrating Founder’s Day. This is part of the Lasallian Spirit Week, during which we highlight the qualities of the school that make it a special place to be. All of it comes together on May 15th when we take the whole day to appreciate our founding, our roots, our way of doing things, our educational community, our context, and our life.

The reason that May 15th is celebrated by many Lasallian schools is because it was the date in 1950 that De La Salle was declared in Rome as the Special Patron of All Teachers of Youth. As the Patron of Teachers, he belongs to everyone who takes on teaching as their vocation. As such, in a school, it’s appropriate to take that day – which conveniently falls near the end of a term – as the day to celebrate his life and legacy.

This year, there will be several components to the day, in recognition of De La Salle’s life, influence, and ongoing inspiration among the 1,096 institutions and 80,000 educators around the world that are part of the educational “Lasallian” movement he began. In the Sports Hall at the beginning of the day, we will begin with a student body Mass, the common form of prayer expression for Catholics, and central to both De La Salle’s life and the lives of all those who live out the love of the Gospel through their educational endeavors. This Mass will be for all high school students and selected elementary school students. For non-Catholics, it is an educational exposure opportunity whereby they may learn about this unique Catholic service and witness its expression as part of our Catholic school identity on this special day. Just as we encourage and include exposure opportunities to other religious traditions for our students, this is the one opportunity during the year to provide an educational exposure opportunity of our Catholic worship traditions for all of the students who attend the school.

In the next few Lasallian reflections prior to May 15th, I will use the opportunity to provide some background information as to the core meaning and elements of the Mass, so that it is not a total mystery for our non-Catholic (and perhaps Catholic) students and staff. Among the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, there are 420,000 priests who “celebrate” (that’s the verb usually used) Mass daily and several times on Sunday in 220,000 “parishes” (churches). Such churches could be anything from the grand Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome to a very simple, drafty wooden or mud building in parts of very poor areas. So it would not be far from the truth to say that every Sunday a million of these “Masses” are “celebrated” all over the world. And almost all of them have the same structure, prayers, rituals, actions, and words (in different languages), although the level of formality may be vastly different, from the ornate to the simple, from inner-city parish to monastery, from huge crowds in large buildings to a small group gathered in a small chapel.

In all of these various settings and formats, they are all about the same thing: expressing, sharing, celebrating, recalling, adopting, and bringing to the fore the loving and saving presence of God in our lives. It’s the love of God made present, shared, and drawn out in each person, with the invitation and directive to do likewise outside of church, especially among people in need. Annie Dillard, a great (non-Catholic) writer, said it best: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Resurrection

These days, Christians around the world recall and celebrate the fantastic explosion of God’s Love in Jesus Christ, brought to true and enduring reality in the way-too-easy-to-dismiss fact of his bodily resurrection from the dead. My Easter-time reflection will be from two others great thinkers and writers, whose words about the resurrection will at least make all of us think a bit.

“The historical case for the Resurrection is that everybody else, except the Apostles, had every possible motive to declare what they had done with the body, if anything had been done with it. The Apostles might have hidden it in order to announce a sham miracle, but it is very difficult to imagine men being tortured and killed for the truth of a miracle which they knew to be a sham.” (G.K. Chesterton, As I Was Saying)

“Saint Paul in one of his Epistles says that if Christ is not risen we are the most miserable of all men... And, indeed, if he was not risen we would be, because then all our faith, all that we call our spiritual experience, all the life we build on it would have been nothing but a delusion or a lie, a hallucination. But we are the most happy of all men because Christ is risen. This is not only something that hundreds and thousands know, but millions know from a direct, personal experience. Many could say: God exists because I have met him, Christ is risen because I have met the risen Christ. And not only in spirit but also in the flesh; because we have the witness of the Apostles, simple men who had run away from Calvary, knowing - as they thought - that Christ was defeated when he was taken down from the Cross and buried, knowing that everything they hoped for had come to an end. And yet, they are the witnesses of the Resurrection, unprepared, hesitant, and then exulting in the joy of the truth which was revealed to them; exulting because the women came in the morning to anoint Christ, and they saw that his body was no longer there. John and Peter came after them, and the tomb was empty. And when they came to the other disciples, asking themselves questions, doubting, hesitating - Christ came to them, and he himself said to them: Fear not! I am not a ghost, I am not a disincarnate vision; a ghost has no flesh and no bones as you can see that I have! And he ate with them, he spoke to them, they touched him! And indeed, St John says in his Epistle that what the Apostles proclaim is what their eyes have seen, their ears heard, their hands touched, and that they are speaking the truth. Yes, Christ is risen, risen not as a ghost, not as a spiritual presence but as a living God with his body, the body of the Incarnation. And indeed, if we truly believe that the Lord Jesus Christ was God himself become man for the salvation of the world, then what is beyond our imagination is that he, who is life itself, could die; and the thing which is obvious and simple is that Life Eternal should break the fetters of death, conquer death, and that he should rise, in the body, in the flesh, as a promise to us. Because uniting himself to human flesh he has shown us that man is so vast and so deep that he can be at one with God, united with God; that, indeed, a human being is complete only if he is in oneness with God, when he is a partaker of the divine nature... The Resurrection is a revelation of the mercy of God, of the power of God, of the love of God... but also of the greatness of man. Death has no fear for us; it has become a gate into eternity, and we know that the day will come when the voice of him who has brought into being all things, the voice of him who is our Savior will resound, and we will all stand before God, clothed with eternity, but in a flesh that has become part of this eternity.” (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Easter Sermon) 

This is the reality that draws forth the substance of our faith. And the longer I live and breathe and think, the more almost self-evident it becomes that the things least able to be explained away are the things most worth attending to. God’s intimate presence, made real through Christ’s resurrection is surely one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leadership and Being Elected

This morning, as I was greeting students in front of the school, one of them stopped for a short conversation, saying at one point: “I wasn't elected to the Senior Council.” That led to some comments about leadership, and the fact that you don’t have to be elected to a position in order to be a leader. In fact, losing an election is probably a fine way of finding out your true disposition towards leadership. Did you mostly want to be elected, or did you mostly want to be a leader? Elections increase expectations, but they don’t make you a better leader.

Leadership may be pursued and exercised without a single title to your name. As I think about good leaders, three aspects of “leadership” stand out to me right now, among the many that are available. Leadership involves the developed capacity to engage in genuine listening, pro-active direction, and graceful persistence. Insofar as these are recognized, taken on, and advanced, leadership grows and deepens.

Genuine listening is more than looking attentive while someone else is speaking. It means being fully in the moment, actively thinking about and absorbing the other person’s words, intentions, and actions. We know people who seem to be fully engaged when they speak with us, as if there was nothing else in the world more important. Politicians have a knack for doing this, as do teachers in general, or even those who successfully wait on tables in restaurants. It’s a developed habit of attention, and good leaders know that such input provides the true substance of what they work with as leaders.

Pro-active direction refers to that unique combination of calculated risk-taking, decision-making, and follow-through that is the exercise of leadership and that may either work very well or fail miserably. This aspect is the difference between those who just think they know better, but don’t do anything to move forward in making it happen, and those who think they might know better, and who take steps in that direction in order to find out. Without somebody doing something, somebody else will, and whatever direction you had envisioned goes off somewhere else. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Leadership rests on the willingness to make the choices and take the actions necessary to move a vision, the things that matter, forward.

Graceful persistence describes the long-term intentionality that is carried onward step by step, at each corner and through each relevant situation. It’s the decisions, conversations, suggestions, challenges, celebrations, hires, budget projections, and evaluation measures that bring a bearing, priority, or goal to life. It is done quietly and inexorably, proceeding with measured stubbornness balanced with tact and a graceful disposition. Great social movements start that way. De La Salle started the Brothers that way. Even the Bible has stories that illustrate this characteristic (Luke 18:1-8; 11:5-8). Jesus knew it. Things are accomplished through thoughtful, well-received, respectful, consistent, nimble, focused, small actions of all kinds that create a current of activity leading to the desired end.

Of course, one can recognize and agree with these three characteristics of leadership without fully possessing any of them. Knowing is different than doing; but knowing helps. These are areas of potentially acquired mastery that each person brings to life in his/her own context and according to his/her own talents and personality. We have to bring them to life in our own little world first. As they begin to be developed, other challenges and opportunities will call us forward, and the whole thing becomes much more interesting. It may even be that we are elected or invited to a position of leadership. But that would simply be the ticket into a new game, and not the game itself. The real fun happens on the field.

In the picture above, I think the real leader is the last penguin.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thou Shalt Not ....

Why is it that so many pieces or advice, instruction, or moral guidance appear to be couched in negative language? “You shall not ….” “Don’t be dishonest.” “Never bet against the house.” You can probably come up with plenty of other examples, from your grandmother, your religious leader, or your best friend. Some of the most popular advice in the world is expressed in terms of what not to do.

The other side of the phenomenon is the fact that telling someone to do something positive doesn’t seem to have the same impact as telling someone to stop doing something negative. Telling someone to “Be nice!” is less effective as “Don’t fidget!” This is because being nice is wide-ranging, generic, and largely open to personal interpretation, whereas not fidgeting is very immediate, clear, and specific, an instruction that allows for little nuance in meaning.  As an instruction, “Be nice!” is a broad searchlight and “Don’t fidget!” is a laser.

Is there something in that specificity of identifying wrong behavior that allows for a greater respect and wider leeway for personal freedom? If we know what not to do, or where you cannot go, doesn’t that give us greater liberty and confidence to wander and explore within the allowable limits?

Back when I was in high school, there was something that my mother said which has stuck with me. The family had just moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. The houses were right next to each other, and our backyard flowed into the backyard of the house on the street behind us. Fences had not yet been built anywhere. On the first evening when our family of seven occupied the house, my mother mentioned to my father at dinner: “The first thing I want you to do is to build the fence around our house. Otherwise I won’t feel free.”

At the time this struck me as a contradiction. How was it that a fence could make you feel more free? Fences are there to limit movement. They enclosed a space and hampered freedom, or so I thought. However, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that fences, rules, principles, limitations, and specific prohibitions usually arise in order to protect or enhance genuine freedom, instead of limiting a false perception of freedom. The best and most creative freedom rests within appropriate limits.

The simplest example of this, also involving a fence, is of a children’s playground in a very busy city, or on the roof of a tall school building. When there is a fence, kids play right up against it, even leaning on it, or resting on the ground with their backs up against it. When there is no fence, the kids play more towards the middle of the playground, not venturing too close to the edges for fear of being outside of the zone of security. Their perceived and actual freedom at play is enhanced by a clear border, one that was pretty much unassailable. Knowing how far you can go better allows you to go as far as you can go.

The Ten Commandments actually define a breadth of liberty. As G.K. Chesterton noted: “If there are only Ten Commandments, it means that there are only ten things forbidden: and that means that there are ten million things that are not forbidden.” It's still true today. Google’s corporate slogan is a negative, “Don’t be evil”, which leaves a lot of room for being and doing good.

So there is wisdom in this age-old practice of the censure of wrong behavior. There may be many such statements which are petty, or vindictive, or wrongly focused. But in terms of the big things, you could do worse than simply stating what shouldn’t be done.

Don’t believe something without trying it out.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Joseph - The Earthly "Abba" for Jesus

For someone about whom we know very little, Saint Joseph certainly seems to get a lot of press. Churches and cities carry his name, devotions request his intercession, schools and religious orders name him as their special patron, and countless people throughout the ages insure that his name remains a constant, solid option for both boys (Joseph, Joe, Giuseppe, Jose, Jusuf. etc.) and girls (Josephine, Johanna, Joanne, Joselyn, etc.). His name means “God will increase,” and this seems to be appropriate.

In the New Testament, the few times that Joseph appears show him to be a conscientious, kind, hard-working, responsible individual who quietly did all of those things that we associate with the best of what it means to be a father. He supported and protected his family. He provided guidance and love to those who were entrusted to his care, Mary and Jesus. He prayed and practiced as a pious, Jewish father would, raising his son through example, interaction, and discipline, bringing God and religious practice to life in the daily circumstances of his place and time.

When I think of Saint Joseph, I don’t think of him as the older, bearded man that is often seen in pious paintings of him. It’s likely that he was about 10 years older than Mary was, which would make him in his mid to late twenties when Jesus was born. Therefore Jesus would have been most influenced by him when Joseph was in his thirties and in his most productive years as a carpenter. Indications are that Joseph and Jesus could have been workers in wood, metal, and stone for a massive rebuilding project at a large city, located a couple of miles outside of Nazareth (population 400), which had been destroyed by the Romans around Jesus’s birth and underwent expensive rebuilding for years thereafter. In other words, they could have commuted every day, affording regular opportunities for conversation and mutual enjoyment. The Jewish Talmud also uses “carpenter” and “son of a carpenter” to signify a very learned man, someone wise and highly literate in the Torah (Jewish scriptures and commentary).

Joseph doesn’t show up in any of the stories associated with his public ministry. If he had been at the crucifixion, Joseph by Jewish custom would have buried Jesus, and Jesus would not have entrusted Mary to the care of the apostle John. Perhaps it was after the death of Joseph that Jesus began to see his life as reaching beyond Nazareth and the small Jewish community there. It was a life-changing catalyst.

The one fascinating aspect of Joseph’s silent presence in the life of Jesus is our common experience of fathers and sons, whereby our notion of “fatherhood” is primarily shaped by our experience with our own fathers. While never perfect, fathers are appreciated by their children whenever small gestures, halting words, semi-awkward situations, or the occasional sincere and quiet talk reveals a deep mutual love peeking through the crust of propriety and popular social expectations. Having known and loved someone from before they were born, fathers grow with their children through their phases of life, and come out relatively unscathed at the end. (Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”) Similarly, children grow with their fathers and come to find their maturity marked with his broad strokes, poignant memories, and small habits.

In the case of Jesus, his “Abba” relationship with God was based on his “Abba” relationship with Saint Joseph. Should it be any surprise, then, that Joseph yet retains that relationship and is held in esteem as a worthy intercessor for our prayers? He is the great model of what true teaching is all about.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Golden Rule

I don’t know about you, but I find it much easier to preach the Golden Rule than to actually go to the trouble of living it out. The momentum of popular culture, crowds, and psychology – not to mention and blame hormones, tiny as they are – make following it virtually impossible, pie in the sky, something to ignore and left to wither and die on the roadside. Stop bothering me! So why, then, are we brought back to this same principle of the Golden Rule again and again by so many religious traditions such that it has become the most important articulation of intentionality that calls out from our human capacity for relationship? Why do people think that the Golden Rule is the key to everything important and worthwhile? Does it apply to my life today, right now?

After he had said to his followers “Love your neighbor as yourself”, Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where someone went out of his way to help a person he could have very easily left alone in the ditch, beaten and robbed. One major difference between the Good Samaritan and the others who passed by is that the Good Samaritan saw the actual person, not the superimposed thing. When you truly – TRULY! - see another as a person, it’s impossible not to help him/her, not to treat them as you would want to be treated. The trouble is that most of us haven’t quite been able to train ourselves to habitually see others as real persons. Our more prevailing habit is to be self-centered, ego-trained, seeing everything through me, myself, and I.

As a result, it has generally been easier and perhaps more fun, to treat another person as a thing, as a non-person whose only real role is to serve my needs, to answer my desires, to do or be what I want them to do or be. They are not what I am; they couldn’t be. They are what I want them to be. That’s it; crossed arms; stern face; no compromise. I can use you as a thing, because I am the most important thing….uhhh, person in my universe. Think pornography, bullying victims, intentionally vicious gossip, even an angry stare or dismissive gesture – all involving people that you really do or could know better. Every self-deception disappears into regret as soon as we think of or come to know those others as real people, persons with mothers and fathers, with problems and worries and rent to pay, with quiet evenings of loneliness because of mistakes made or decisions lamented, with a deep hunger for the only thing that makes any real difference – genuine caring, or kindness, or concern from others. And if you don’t think that you will ever be in such a place yourself, one that is uniquely your own, then you’re just not paying attention. The world is great, but it’s full of real people, and you’re one of them – just one.

The problem with the notion that I can treat others as things (in effect and approach) is that it cannot hold, depending almost entirely on the goodness of others who do not share that notion as fiercely or as completely. Character blossoms when “me” turns into “thou” and “things” grow into “persons.” It happens  most dramatically when love is ripped open like a ripe fruit, through parenthood, love at first sight (or its equivalent), an impulsive kind gesture to someone in need, a service trip, a drive to change society for the better. It happens steadily and deeply through problems shared and joys celebrated, mysteries encountered and wonder ignited. The Golden Rule is golden only when it rules. At all other times it lies covered, hidden or forgotten, awaiting its time in the sun of my ego, where it may come to shine more truly than anything that I might be able to create or imagine on my own, especially myself.

I can think of several very specific cases right now – as you do – that call out, deserve, and even demand the Golden Rule within us. Perhaps one of the simplest and best ways to bring it to life is by refusing to condone “person as thing” attitudes, perspectives, or manifestations: “No, I won’t look at that. Delete it.” “No, I won’t say that. You shouldn’t either.” “How about if we do something positive for him/her instead?” The alternative is to completely shut out out the Golden Rule – “If I don’t think of it, it won’t be true.” However, doing that runs the very real risk of becoming the “things” that we treat as such, losing the unlived gift of personhood and never finding the gold inside the rule, or even inside ourselves.

As with most things, the worthwhile and important “rules” of good living require some effort. They also have unexpected rewards that are inversely proportional to the amount of words required to articulate them. Perhaps that’s why the Golden Rule tops them all. Try it and see.

  •   Islam: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”  (The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith)
  • Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5.18)
  • Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
  • Taoism: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.” (T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien, 213-218)
  • Christianity: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Jesus, Matthew 7:12)
  • Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” (Hillel, Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are All or Most Wars Caused by Religion?

The problem with facts is that they interfere with our prejudices. Even given the intentional nature by which facts are obtained and shared, the most blatant prejudices quickly fall by the impact of even one well-chosen pebble of a fact.

The prejudice that I have in mind showed up in a recent Catholic weekly: “The Western secularists’ protest – that all the trouble in the world is caused by religion – seems to be confirmed by every headline.”  Evidence is cited from Syria, Iraq, much of the Middle East, parts of Europe, and Africa. Gladly, the modern world has also been drawn more and more towards a Western model of civic peace. “It is not in the fundamental nature of either mainstream Christianity or Islam nowadays to want to prevail by force, and the leaderships of virtually all faiths pay more than lip service to the principle of toleration.” The backlash to fundamentalism (e.g., in Egypt) has begun to become more pronounced, and those involved in such counter-movements “do not necessarily want less religion; they want the best it has to offer.” (The Tablet – 1 Feb, 2014, pg. 2)

That is a good and fine distinction to make. Religion is a wide-ranging, universal word that like a sponge will absorb whatever personally significant liquid lies nearby. Religion deals with meaning, mystery, and me. The shape of religion emerges from how a community of “me” individuals becomes “we” and builds or expresses itself. Grace is built on nature and works through nature. Religion engages the desire and capacity for “more” in people at a depth and breadth that really does require the balancing influence of a community, like rough rocks polished over time in a revolving drum. More wacky people live alone, physically and/or psychologically, than live in a caring community.

Today, there is a wacky me-based danger that an independent, generic secularism will become our de facto religion, whereby any formal “religion” is seen as a uniformly bad thing, and an individualized “spirituality” reigns supreme.  “The unofficial anthem of secularism today is John Lennon’s Imagine, in which we are encouraged to imagine a world without religion. We don’t have to imagine such a world; the 20th century has given us horrific examples of such worlds. Instead of a world living in peace because it is without religion, why not imagine a world without nation states? … There are, obviously, individuals and groups who still misuse religion as a reason for violent behaviour, but modern nation states don’t need religion as an excuse for going to war. Every major war in the last 300 years has been fought by nation states, not by the church…. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.” (Cardinal Francis George)

Now for that interesting pebble of fact: The 2004 Encyclopedia of Wars, a reference work written by two professors of history, chronicles 1,763 wars over the course of recorded human history. Of those, the authors attribute 123 wars as being religiously-based (<7%). And when those waged in the name of one religion (Islam) are removed, that number is reduced to 57 wars (3.28 %). (Cf.

All wars are finally a smear on human nature, especially those that are waged for exclusively religious reasons. Wars may not be evidence of our best, but they certainly evidence our worst (AKA "sin"). But to blame all or most wars on religion blithely ignores the important pebbles of fact that lie within close reach.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day - Love on Parade

The worldwide celebration of Valentine’s Day may legitimately be placed at the feet of the British, whose impact and influence over the last two hundred years planted the seeds of many contemporary popular practices in most of the countries that they entered (conquered?). Early Victorian practices for the Feast of St. Valentine – celebrated in the Anglican Church on February 14th – were carried overseas, and the natural appeal of the stories, myths, and rituals related to love and its expression ensured that it would endure in almost every culture.

What’s not to love about love? Song lyrics almost universally exploit its appeal, usually in extreme terms, ranging from discovery to betrayal to resolution. Popular song titles from the past that most of us will readily recognize include The Power of Love, Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, I Want to Know What Love Is, I Just Called to Say I Love You, How Deep Is Your Love, and so on. Some of the more interesting and humorous lyrics in this respect seem to come from the American country music repertoire, very few of which use the word “love” but all of which are about love: I Keep Forgettin’ I Forgot About You, How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Go Away, I Changed Her Oil - She Changed my Life, The Heart Won’t Lie, You Had Me from Hello. (My personal favorite in this category is Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life.)

One fascinating thing about love is the fact that we cannot describe its reality adequately through any of our normal means of communication. When we try to use words to express it to someone, we end up with piles of crumpled paper, or trashed emails or texts, or walking through multiple scenarios and practicing in front of a mirror. Those with the talent (and those without) attempt to enrich their written communication through poetry or verse. The great poets do a pretty good job of it:  How do I love thee? (Browning), The Road Not Taken (Frost), Sonnet 116 (Shakespeare). But most of us end up writing something that sounds like it belongs in a bad greeting card. Yet at the same time, and much more important in terms of our human experience, clarity of expression is a distant second to the fact that there simply is some kind of expression. The fact of making the attempt carries 90% of the weight. There must be consolation in that. The mystery of love is entered into via its expression. Any love-based relationship – spouse, friend, group, God – and by extension any thing, cause, or ideal that draws in our soul, defines and shapes us as human persons, ultimately drawn to the God who is Love.

For me, Shakespeare continues to be the most evocative, brilliant, and subtle expositor of love’s spinning dimensions, and so for this Valentine’s Day, his words may help tame the whirlwind.

Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chinese New Year

The experience of Chinese New Year in Singapore is a singularly unique experience for someone unfamiliar with Asian customs and traditions. There are the more immediate impressions of watching people everywhere toss multiple Lo Hei ingredients, neatly stacked on a large common platter, with gigantic chop sticks while standing around a dining table. It’s a fun activity for friends and family, rewarded by the opportunity to consume the resulting mixture. There are also the more subtle activities, such as visiting friends and exchanging two oranges for good luck, the giving of small red packets with small financial tokens of appreciation, the lion dances, red lanterns, glittering shops and stalls in Chinatown, along with all of the games and food. All of these and more coalesce around that unique celebration of the beginning of the new lunar year.

The closest approximation I can come to it, from a decidedly U.S. perspective, is that it’s a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, all rolled into one. And with that mental picture comes a deep appreciation of the role that human relationships hold within our personal universe of meaning, something that is shared across all cultures and civilizations. During my occasional ramblings among the CNY stalls, I noticed that the vast majority of shoppers and visitors were families or couples. Even late at night, you could find people of all ages enjoying the atmosphere, browsing through the stalls, taking photos of one another with their cell phones. CNY revolves around families and relationships, which is not surprising but which, like most obvious things, is worth bringing to the fore every once in a while.
There is a current article in a recent Popular Science magazine that I’m reading. It’s all about the nature of “dark matter” in the universe, the 85% of “stuff” that should be there, based on all the scientific evidence from astronomical physics. The only thing is, we can’t find it. Dark matter is only known because without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. “An invisible factor makes galaxies rotate faster than expected. It makes clusters of galaxies bend and distort passing starlight more than they should. It even seems to explain how those galaxies formed in the first place. Supercomputer simulations show that diffuse clouds of ordinary matter in the early universe did not have enough gravity to pull together into the ordinary galaxies and galaxy clusters seen today. Run the same simulations with a dark component stirred in and everything comes together just right.” (Nov 2013, pg. 38) The one thing scientists do know is that dark matter is radically different from the atoms that make up you and me and our entire known physical world. What we do know is that it has to be there somewhere, and there’s a lot of it.
May I suggest that the “stuff” of human relationships is as important, unknown, and vast as this “dark matter” in the universe? Although we cannot put our finger on it, we know that without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. Human relationships are radically different from all other relationships (with goods, money, hobbies, technology, power, even pets) that make up our relational world. What we do know is that it has to be there in our lives somewhere in order for things to make sense, and there’s a lot of it. What would our lives be like if we recognized this reality and spent 85% of our energy on that cultivation of human relationships? My guess is that we would begin to experience a personal universe as vast, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and inviting as a clear, starlit night in the desert.
"The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." (Einstein)

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Baptism of Jesus

Just a few weeks ago, the church celebrated the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. This has always been a rather interesting celebration for me, because I’ve always thought, “Wait a minute. If Jesus was the Son of God, he didn’t need to get baptised. He was already without sin.” It didn’t seem to make sense to be “cleansed” of something that didn’t quite apply to you; sort of like preaching to the choir or bringing coals to Newcastle. But recently, I read a whole new perspective on this scriptural passage.

 “When we are baptised, we are plugged into waters that cleanse us from sin. When Christ came unto Jordan, He came sinless, but this time in the maturity of manhood, at a point at which His human will, identified with the will of God, made Him a self-offering; He brought Himself there to begin, to start the way to the Cross. Thousands were baptised in the Jordan, and each of them proclaimed his sins and these waters of Jordan were heavy with the murderous sins of men. Christ had no sin to proclaim and to confess, and when He entered into these waters of Jordan, He entered, to use an image of a contemporary divine, as one plunges, walks into a dye — He was dyed with the darkness of our sins. He came out of it carrying all the sins of the world. He came out of the waters of Jordan loaded with the condemnations that lay upon the world. And this is the time when He begins His ascent to the Cross.” (Anthony Bloom)

What an insightful and meaningful interpretation of this biblical event! Like the Gospel itself, it turns our previous interpretation of things on its head. The story is not about Jesus being cleansed from sin, but rather poignantly represents Jesus taking on the sins of others.

We are not unfamiliar with this sort of acceptance of the burdens of others, the sins of others, for the sake or for the good of those others. Parents know this all too well, as do good teachers and anyone in leadership positions. Lucy knew this “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” And it’s found in good stories throughout history, from Brothers Karamazov, The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and Nicholas Nickelby to Frodo and Katnis Everdeen and Avatar. One of our best human characteristics is drawn out in this capacity for sacrifice, for moving beyond self interest. Being in community leads us to want to trust in the goodness of others, despite their faults and foibles, or perhaps because of their faults and foibles. One way in which we address our own sins and limitations is by becoming ever more conscious of, and charitable towards, the sins and limitations of others, even to the point of absorbing their effects, embracing them within a larger perspective. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The thing about Jesus is that his story is the real deal. The thing that all those other stories and experiences seek to draw out or express receive their light from the sun of Christ’s reality.  Just as new parents know within seconds of holding their first child in their arms that the world has radically, profoundly, irrevocably changed in ways they had always heard about but never really knew, so did the baptism and subsequent ascent to the Cross of Jesus radically, profoundly, and irrevocably change the relationship between Jesus and His father, between ourselves and God, in ways we might have heard about but don’t really fully know. When he emerged from that water in the Jordan, Jesus held us more closely than we can fully imagine. How we discover that reality in our lives remains a unique personal challenge and opportunity

Friday, January 17, 2014

Re-configuring Your Conversational Universe

I read this saying recently: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him.” While humorous, the saying also highlights the evolving nature of our language and its potentially dire consequences. d lngwij dat yung ppl uz iz v dfrnt frm wot we tink of az normL. (Over 400 billion text messages like this are being sent every month around the world.) Face it; the bandwidth for language is expanding, and that may be a good thing. My hope is that as a result, the depth of what we talk about does not suffer, that we still value and pursue the things worth talking about.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a long, thoughtful, relaxing conversation about a wide variety of topics, all of which might belong to the meadow of my interest but none of which I needed to kill for dinner. Most of my talking has been held hostage to the gravitational pull of daily affairs, school meetings, problems to address, and pleasant banter. My vocabulary has not improved much as a result. There are only so many ways that you can arrange the same set of words and ideas over the course of a day.

So whither lays a possible change in direction? I can think of three potential ways of re-configuring the universe of personal communication, its appreciation and its exercise: good poetry, intentional engaged reading, and the sustained practice of enriched casual speech.

Good poetry stretches our language skills, as good artwork stretches our perception skills. They could be simple poems like Haiku or lengthy ones like T.S. Eliot’s. What they do so well is move us from curiosity to confusion to confession. Meanings emerge like water bubbling through sand, and deliberately chosen words demand one’s interest, personal commitment, and finally some sort of digestion. Good poems can’t be left alone, and they grow more graceful with longer engagement. One can’t but believe that poems act as a tonic for the soul of our language, and that the whole benefits from these small bits of rich meaning.

Intentional engaged reading refers to sitting down with something that draws the mind forward through story or reflection or good research. Writers like Annie Dillard, Malcolm Gladwell, and Ron Rolheiser come to mind. Even 15-20 minutes a day is sufficient to tease out deeper involvement with some meaning that outlives the experience of the reading itself. The New York Times, the Tablet, or a professional journal would also qualify. The point is to intentionally read something essentially unpredictable and conceptually adventurous. Raise the language bar for yourself.

Finally, there are our regular conversations. What would happen if we were to be less automatic and “casual” about casual speech? There are those who truly speak to others. Think of it as a quietly verbal version of Avatar’s “I see you.” Look at video examples of John Paul II or Pope Francis, along with a number of religious figures, who seem to know that once you truly see another person as one who carries and reflects the dignity of God, you must pay full attention and care about what you say and how you say it. Easier said than done, of course, but you know people who are able to do this well, probably because of simply who they are or have become. All of us have the same capacity. Enriched casual speech just takes practice, intentionality, a certain perspective, and the sharpened personal tools to do so. It’s an exciting learning experience once you start.

Were these three things to be pursued, my guess is that texting will be very poor second.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's and Our Capacity for Newness

New Year’s celebrations are funny things.  Where 364 past midnights have passed by with barely a whimper, this one on December 31st gets all the bang and splendor of a world-changing event. Where people have slept through most of the midnights of the year, extra effort is made to “stay up” for this one. For grownups, New Year’s Eve is like waiting up for Santa, for the gift of new opportunities, dusted-off hopes and dreams, a toast into the darkness, full of glitter and noise.

I admit that I’m no different than others in this respect. This last New Year’s Eve, I was with a small group of seven Brothers who had gone to a rustic camp on the Russian River in Northern California, one which we have owned since the 1920’s. Overlooking the river, we had a nice dinner – the steaks were way too big for my newly Singaporeanized tastes – and then people read or talked or went to the TV room down the hall. About twenty minutes before midnight, we all went into the TV room, watched the crazy people at Times Square with their semi-manufactured excitement, and took part in the general wave of anticipation (with a three-hour delay). Finally, amidst huge screens and light, glitter and noise, the “ball” dropped and we all toasted in the New Year with a small glass of champagne. Then we gratefully moved to our small bedrooms and forgot all about it.

Funny enough, the next morning was pretty much as it had been the day before, and people were pretty much the same as they were before. So where was the difference? We would now be a bit careful when we wrote out a date, making sure that it was “2014” and not the automatic “2013.” We would begin to work on a couple of personal resolutions, usually surrounding weight and exercise. And we would have a slightly brighter disposition for a few days or weeks, because something new had begun.

It’s the celebration of that newness, it seems to me, that makes all the difference for us. You could even say that New Year’s Eve is a celebration of our capacity for newness. Change is possible and exciting, no matter how small. Potential and hope are ever nearby, waiting to be recognized. We may get distracted by buying new clothes, new trinkets, new phones, believing these may fill the hole in the soul. Yet each time it’s not really enough, doesn’t really do the trick. There’s a “more” that drives our capacity for newness, and it is one that comes from the drive of life itself, from an instinct to be part of this world, to be alive.

Our capacity for newness is also manifested in our sense of wonder and imagination. Mystery, including the mystery of life itself, remains ever intriguing and captivating. Just see the expression on the faces of children and the young at heart when they encounter new aspects of the world around them. We say that they “light up” with excitement, with the sheer brilliance of the newness of it all.

This capacity for newness is something that requires sustenance and regular exercise, and not only the annual slightly inebriated gesture into the night. Kids discover newness best and do so naturally. Older folks with tendencies of ossification have to be more intentional about it. But it is always there, willing to be brought into the light of day, even if that light has to be made up of exploding fireworks.

May you be well and truly blessed with all the new that embraces you, remembering St. Augustine’s insight: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”