By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Picking Up Some Pointers

I quickly read yesterday a popular book from the late nineties entitled Don't Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. It's a typical self-help book by business types (the author is apparently a "stress consultant"), but I have picked out some of the better insights to help all of us as the days of summer end and the busy season for many of us begins in earnest.

1. "Let Go of the Idea that Gentle, Relaxed People Can't Be Superachievers": The goal is to be effective, not busy. Busyness is often a cover for confusion. I think Steven Covey also pointed out that we should make sure that each day we focus on what is really important for the long term. There should at least be one or two things you do each day that contribute to your long term goals. We should not simply spend ourselves trying to put out trivial fires that have no (what I like to call) structural significance.

2. "Remind Yourself that When You Die, Your 'In Basket' Won't Be Empty": This idea meshes with the above insight. The crucial issue is the structure of our lives, not the discrete tasks within our lives. If we get the structure right, then the proliferation of discrete tasks is in itself not so crucial.

3. "Be the First One to Act Loving or Reach Out": The worst that can happen is that your act will not be appreciated. So what? That's the problem of the other.

4. "Practice Random Acts of Kindness": Same as above. Jesus said it as quoted by Paul in the Acts of the Apostles: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." You want proof? Try it. (By the way, this saying is the only quoted saying of Jesus not from the Gospels, although, of course, the rest of the New Testament is full of his teachings.)

5. "Look Beyond Behavior": You need to be perceptive with people. Often, people cover up what they really feel with their behavior. Don't be superficial in your conclusions by focusing on the superficial only.

6. "See the Innocence": We forget that adults are often as helpless as children in dealing with life. Remember that beyond the adult facade there can often lie a lot of plain fear and uncertainty about what to do.

7. "Choose Being Kind Over Being Right": We just have to overlook trivial errors and forget about constantly correcting others. I have kept my mouth shut not a few times when people start making factually inaccurate statements. I am glad I did because the issues were trivial and growing the friendship was a far higher priority.

8. "Become an Anthropologist": This pointer is related to No. 5 about looking beyond behavior. We humans are very complex. Try to understand and ponder, rather than jumping to conclusions. This truth is an aspect of Jesus' advice to judge not that we be not judged.

9. "Understand Separate Realities": We have very different backgrounds and experiences. What seems obvious to me may not be obvious to you. Keep that in mind when people's behavior puzzles you.

10. "Argue for Your Limitations, and They're Yours": Don't defeat yourself first. If you are going to be defeated, let reality do it and then learn from the defeat.

11. "Just for Fun, Agree with Criticism Directed Toward You (Then Watch It Go Away)": Some people will absolutely never admit to fault or error of any kind. Some can't ever bring themselves to say that they are sorry. It's a self-imposed straight jacket and prison.

12. "Understand the Statement, 'Wherever You Go, There You Are' ": Live in the present moment and focus on making the present the best present possible, even if you would rather be somewhere else with someone else.

13. "Do a Favor and Don't Ask For, or Expect, One in Return": Dovetails with Nos. 3 and 4.

14. "Think of Your Problems as Potential Teachers": This attitude helps avoid anger and leads us to personal growth.

15. "Get Comfortable Not Knowing": I once read something to the effect that the successful scientific researcher is the one who imagines that he has been dealt the "right hand" so that all the myriad uncertainties will shift in his favor and then goes ahead and follows his educated intuition. Yes, you often don't get the right hand; but this moving forward is the only way to find out if you did get it.

16. "Become an Early Riser": You wake up in peace, not in emergency mode.

17. "Transform Your Relationship to Your Problems": View them as disguised friends. They often are. See No. 14 above.

18. "Listen to Your Feelings (They are Trying to Tell You Something)": The Christian will add: ask for a spirit of wisdom and revelation and discernment from the Holy Spirit often and often throughout the day. Seek the charisms of word of wisdom, word of knowledge, prophecy, and discernment of spirits.

19. "If Someone Throws You the Ball, You Don't Have to Catch It": A variant--don't take the bait. Don't be ensnared. Let's take our crosses from Jesus, not from those who have invented "crosses" that are not for us.

20. "Trust Your Intuitive Heart": See No. 18.

21. "Mind Your Own Business": Respect the privacy of others. Give them the space they need. Refrain from judging for the very elementary reason that you are ignorant of many, many things. Eventually, Adonai will let you know what you need to know.

22. "Live This Day as if It Were Your Last, It Might Be!": The Scriptures tell us to number our days. Ask the Lord to tell you what needs to be done today and cannot be left undone.

What is the common theme of all the above? To live more mindfully and prayerfully. To become aware, to understand, and only then to act, as St. Ignatius Loyola advised. The Ignatian Examen Prayer is a great tool for this daily challenge (see link).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Climbing Mountains

Over the summer, I attended a parish cell meeting in my local Catholic parish and heard a recorded message from the associate pastor (parochial vicar). The line that stuck with me was very simple: let us get on with it and climb our particular mountains. It reminds me of how Jesus in Gethsemane simply announced to his disciples: arise and let us be on our way. I also heard a similar word in the old musical The Sound of Music where the mother superior encourages one of the main characters to confront the challenges of life by climbing every mountain instead of seeking to retreat in cowering fear from life.

As the summer ends, we strongly sense the need to either climb mountains or to run away from challenges. Whether we are students or parents or both, let's resolve to climb the mountains that we face. All that we need is faith the size of a mustard seed, and the mountains can be moved. The Gospel calls us to radical boldness in which we renounce anxiety, fear, and excessive microplanning of our future and that of others. We live in the present taking one step at a time in trust in Adonai. Let's be on our way with a decisive and assured gait. We have nothing to lose but our obstacles, some of which are surely merely figments of our anxious imaginations.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Charism of Encouragement

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (RSV) Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

1 Corinthians 14:3 (ESV) On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

We see from the above verses (emphases added) the command of St. Paul to encourage and thus to build up one another. We also see encouragement as an aspect of the excellent charism of prophecy.

A charism is a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit that builds up the Church. Certainly, encouragement falls into that category. Why is this particular charism so important today?

1. We, in the United States and in other developed nations, put a great focus on material and career success. It is a great burden on many who mistakenly believe that their self-worth is really based on these external achievements. In contrast, the Christian message is that our self-worth is based on the free love of Jesus for each of us. We do not need to earn it. We couldn't earn it anyway. That angst for external socially approved success within so many in our hypercompetitive society can be cured by the charism of encouragement that affirms the worth of each person even without such external markers of social success.

2. Yet, at the same time, we also have a tendency, so to speak, to "shoot too low" in our plans and goals. Encouragement tells the other that he or she should aim high, even if there is a higher risk of failure, because by aiming high we end up landing higher up regardless of what happens. With encouragement, we can lose our vain fear of failure and see what God can really do with us. I recall a saying from Josemaria Escriva to the effect that, whenever we draw up the equation full of all the relevant variables and constraints for any task before us, we must never forget to add God to the equation. God is the constant that makes all the difference in the equation.

Too often, religious people end up criticizing or nit-picking too much, rather than encouraging enough. Pray that the Holy Spirit will release in you the charism of encouragement. It is sorely needed today as many settle for too little that does little justice to their abilities, dignity, and worth. Any Christian community should be swirling with mutual encouragement. It is funny that in our society many people, even Christians, find encouragement suspect as if it were some sort of false or manipulative flattery. Some even get nervous when they are encouraged or praised, as if it is something they do not really deserve. Yet, it is not so much a matter of deserving encouragement or praise by looking backward as it is a matter of being open to responding to it in our future actions.

The fear of encouragement and praise is related to the other common fear of being the recipient of generous giving. We strongly resist the idea of becoming supposedly "indebted" to someone else because it may restrict our freedom. Yet, a gift is not a matter of creating a debt--otherwise, it would not be gratuitous. We have to become more open to the law of gratuitousness that the Pope speaks about in his recent social encyclical. That openness requires humility and putting pride on the shelf. To accept the gratuitous is to acknowledge that the force that defines reality is love with no strings attached, not pay back, and that all things belong to God anyway. In the same way, viewing encouragement as a charism can change the suspicious point of view which cheats all of us of one of the great delights of life and friendship that can propel our growth and flourishing.

To Be Rudderless No More

Human beings, I am convinced, are hard wired for a plan of life and a plan for life. Otherwise, we remain rudderless, lost, and, as Emerson said long ago, living in quiet desperation--with hearts and passions unengaged. The difference is easy to see in the lives of people in their twenties. On the one hand, I can see a college student who is obviously intently pursuing some career or field of study. He or she is alive with purpose. On the other hand, I see another student or recent graduate with a face cast in low-grade despair working a mundane job without hope, without seeing this job, however mundane, as a stepping stone to something more fulfilling. Yet, even in those who are rudderless and "planless," I see the beautiful and innate joy of life (the joie de vivre) which God has implanted in all human beings. Yet, that joy is intermittent and transient because there is no meaning or purpose in life that consistently captures and engages the heart and its passion for the rudderless person.

I believe this rudderless existence is why we see so much silly frivolity--strange, "shock" fashion, sexual hookups, excessive body markings and piercings, running from rock concert to rock concert, even trying to fill in the void in life with capricious travel or relocation plans, anything to give the sense of living life with a purpose without actually having a meaningful purpose or plan.

Now, of course, the problem is not just the fundamental divide of those with no plan and those with a plan. There are plenty of sociopaths with plans. The first step is to experience the abundantly affirming love of God the Father who made you for a particular mission. The next step is to ask the Father to reveal and confirm your passion, your calling for life. The final step is to jump or leap into the hands of the Father and follow that divinely confirmed passion regardless of the daunting obstacles. The rest is your life with meaning and purpose, not aimlessly killing the hours and days in quiet, eccentric desperation. The passionate life is the meaningful, yes purpose-driven, life. Grab it and run. But first get to know Abba, your Father, so that your plan does not destroy you.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "Neo" Phenomenon and Pentecost

The Greek prefix "neo" means "new." You see its use all of the time as in the terms "neo-conservative" or "neo-liberal." Some chronologically young traditionalists in the Church and their older mentors view themselves as the wave of the future: they are, so to speak, the neo-traditionalists. Yet, I have to disagree, theologically, historically, and biblically, on viewing them as the future of the Church. I do not see them as the true future but rather as a revival of a very recent past. Yes, in the objective scale of biblical salvation history, even the Tridentine era of the 1500's is the very, very recent past. It is only yesterday.

It is easy, when young, to find many, many defects in the status quo. It is normal and healthy, but it can also distort reality because it can often be merely a reflection of very personal frustrations rather than a realistic depiction of the world. What can also cause that distortion in an often overheated catalogue of imagined defects drawn up by some of the chronologically young is a lack of historical perspective (I am careful to use the word "chronologically" because I find that the spirit of this group is really not all that authentically youthful, as will be explained below).

The privileged historical pivot for examining the Church is not the very, very historically recent Tridentine past but rather Pentecost. There the Church was first manifested in very public power to representatives of the entire known world of the Jewish Diaspora. There was a manifestation of boldness, truth, praise, and wonders that would turn the great Roman Empire upside down. The speaking in tongues was not so much about overcoming language barriers (the common koine Greek language of the Mediterranean world had, providentially, already overcome those barriers for many, as seen in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and in the travels and writings of Paul) but was rather a sign of wonder to demonstrate that what the Old Testament had foreseen was finally hear: as the prophet Joel quoted by Peter in the first Christian Pentecost sermon said, now Adonai was implementing his promise to pour out his Spirit on all flesh.

That privileged moment of Pentecostal power will always be the future of the Church. When some choose to substitute another historical moment for Pentecost, they are really choosing against the perpetual future of the Church and substituting instead an arbitrary point in the past. Pentecost has the privileged character of the pivotal past event that is inherently, always, and perennially the future of the Church. Not even the Tridentine moment of the 1500's can come even close to substituting for that.

The "neo" phenomenon always tries to revive what is really only past and not perpetually future. The hour of Pentecost does not need the prefix "neo" because Pentecost, although a real past event in history, is, at the same time, intrinsically and perpetually new for all ages. Pentecost is the biblically and theologically privileged historical point from which to evaluate the state and condition of the Church in all centuries. Anything else ends up as an arbitrary historical revival that will age just as the chronologically young of today are already aging before our eyes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Third Man Factor: Sounds Very Familiar

Take time to read this August 24th Wall Street Journal book review at this link about a book that explores the reports of mountain climbers and others in extreme situations where survival is at stake about the experience of sensing the presence of another person accompanying you even when you are alone or in addition to your flesh and blood companions. Many Catholics reading the descriptions of the experience of this "third man factor" will recognize the way Catholics have described the experience of having and even conversing with a guardian angel or with God Himself.

The author of the book being reviewed opts, not surprisingly, for the expected evolutionary explanation: this psychological phenomenon is a product of the human mind that enables us to survive when we are in extreme situations such as that of the primitive hunter who gets cut off from the rest of his hunting band (the constant harping on evolution seems a bit trite and banal to me--we can view just about everything as a favorable evolutionary adaptation enabling us to survive; does the evolutionary label really add something new to our analysis or discourse about our human experiences?). Of course, the Catholic view is that such experiences need not just be the projection of our own minds but may involve contact with actual spiritual realities that exist independently of our own minds. Read and judge for yourself.

I cannot help but quote the excerpt at the end of the article which I read with a smile as the book's author describes the consolation that believers have experienced for centuries from their relationship with Adonai:

"Imagine the impact on our lives if we could learn to access this feeling at will," he says. "There could be no loneliness with so constant a companion. There could be no stress in life that we would ever again have to ­confront alone."

Source link.

The quote sounds like the author is discovering for the first time the content of religious experience that has been around and documented for millenia. Maybe, it's time to dig out the old Baltimore Catechism and review those pages on guardian angels. Maybe, it's time to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior so that you can have that reliable companion at all times, especially in the most stressful times of crisis where physical or emotional survival is at stake.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Detachment in Social Relationships

It is indeed so hard for us weak, vulnerable, and naturally insecure human beings to be detached from outcomes, such as whether those we like also like us, or whether we get that ticket to the job or graduate program we desire, or whether we are able to attract people to some event we are involved with in our work or in an apostolate. But if we do not try to acquire detachment from outcomes, we can end up in a very painful earthly purgatory as we beat ourselves up over what we may have done wrong (sometimes we even imagine things that we may have done wrong as somehow being related to certain outcomes that in fact had nothing at all to do with our actions). Especially painful for many is the common situation where a friend or loved one intentionally decides to distance himself or herself from you.

What is the solution so that we can receive the peace of mind that Jesus offers us in such a disappointing social situation? Here are some tentative stabs at the problem:

1. Humility: We are not the center of the universe nor necessarily the center of the preoccupations of others. If we experience unexplained rejection or coldness from others, it may very well have nothing to do with us but with issues and problems that are highly personal that an individual needs time and respectful distance to resolve. Humility gives that person the time out he needs to get his house in order and to be ready to, again, resume, if called for, normal relations in the future.

2. Charity: Related to the above described humility is the giving to the other of the benefit of the doubt, the giving of a presumption of good intentions. If you have experienced the authentic goodness of someone, that goodness remains in spite of a certain distancing.

3. Accessibility: Regardless of events, we remain respectfully accessible to any resumption of a normal relationship, if the other so freely chooses.

4. Prayer: Intercede for the other who may possibly be in difficult personal circumstances or turmoil.

5. Trust: Trust that the same God that surprised you with the blessing of knowing someone will surprise you with further blessings through that same person or others presently unknown.

6. Examine Yourself: In the above prescriptions, I am assuming a no-fault situation. Yet, in some cases, there are in fact defects or simply morally neutral tendencies within ourselves that can drive others away. It may be time to take a personal inventory, possibly with the aid of a trusted friend or spiritual director. It can't hurt to do so even if we are not at fault.


By the way, as a matter of cautious clarification, the above assumes that the social relationship was not abusive in any way. When abuse is involved, then a complete and permanent break is obviously well-justified. We are not obligated in any way to pursue the optional gift of intimate friendship with abusive personalities of any kind, just as we are, for example, not obligated to marry anyone simply because they wish to marry us. This clarification is necessary in an age where I see dysfunctional personalities multiplying because of so much increased confusion about healthy behavior.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Leap of Faith

This term is usually associated with the Danish writer Kierkegaard (although, see this link which asserts that Kierkegaard actually used the phrase "leap to faith"). The phrase seems to be used when facing the decision of whether to accept the Christian proclamation in the first place. I will use it today to refer to the decisions that people already Christian must take in the course of life.

Yesterday, I spent about two hours with a seminarian friend back from and headed back shortly to Italy. Although quite younger than I am and although I think that, in our analysis of what the future of the Church will be like, we do not see eye to eye, I did take the time to ask him for and jot down the spiritual insights or wisdom he has gained in his seminary "baptism by fire." As a young person who had to make a big decision to go off to the seminary, he came back with this phrase: "Jump and God will catch you" (he cautioned that he did not mean jumping off a building--recall here the Gospel scene where Jesus refuses to tempt God by jumping from the Temple in Jerusalem as someone slyly suggested to him).

What he meant was that we have to put our toes and feet in the water before we can tell if the water is for us. In my biblical mindset, we have to step into the Jordan before the waters part and we can enter the Promised Land as the Hebrew priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant did in the Old Testament. Step forward and see if the door opens. Step forward and see if the toll gate lifts. If the door does not open, then you have your discernment: find another path. If the door does open, then you may very well be on to something that will take you home, subject to further confirmations. Discernment does not mean waiting for a detailed map to appear beforehand. Discernment means trust, prayer, and stepping forward. Then stopping, trusting more, praying more, and taking another step. Abraham the father of faith is the model as he stepped into the unknown with amazing trust. St. Ignatius Loyola puts it in very characteristically practical, direct Hispanic terms: be aware, understand, act.

The other comment made by my young friend was to the effect that if we do discover that we have made a mistake, then we trust that God will fix it, especially if we made the mistake in good faith seeking to follow His will. Trust casts out fear. We, of all people, we who claim to be Christians would do well to stop being fearful about our next step. Otherwise, what do we have to offer to a very anxious and insecure age?

This entire issue of discernment, of course, raises the matter of the charism of discernment which is plainly taught by St. Paul as the discernment of spirits. Discernment of our next step in life is necessarily related to the discernment of spirits: which spirit is motivating and directing my next step in life? Is it my own unrealistic imagination or the spirit of darkness or the Holy Spirit? This practical reality is why we should all humbly seek the charism of discernment of spirits. We seek this charism as we do all the other charisms, not out of some sort of pride or love of the sensational, but for one very practical reason: we can't handle the task based on our natural abilities and talents alone. In spite of the strange arguments we hear that we should not seek the charisms because such seeking violates humility, it is in fact and precisely a very realistic humility that compels us in the first place to seek the charism of discernment of spirits and the other charisms also because we know that we are in woeful need of great help.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

God's Timing

The book of Ecclesiastes has the famous passage about an appropriate time for everything:

There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Source link (NAB Translation).

We often get frustrated at the delays we face--we naturally want all good things now, and we want them continually without any interruptions. An awareness of God's providential timing can enable us to maintain our peace in the face of delays and interruptions. It is common to read commentaries describing the bleak view of reality of this book of the Bible. Yet, at least in this passage, I do not see bleakness but rather an invitation to become wise to the rhythms of God's pace. A distinction a friend recently mentioned to me might enable some of us to be a bit more patient and trusting about God's sometimes inscrutable pace: the distinction between what we want and what we are destined for by Providence. We have many wants, but wants are not determinative of where our fulfillment lies. The fulfillment of wants must often be delayed in order to win the crown, and sometimes certain wants simply have to be set aside as no longer relevant to our destiny in Jesus.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bad Leaders Imply That the Good Ones Said No

That's the thought expressed in this meditation for tomorrow from (a Catholic and charismatic website--one day we will not have to be so explicit in the description because in reality the two words are synonymous). Here is an excerpt from their incisive commentary on the daily Mass readings for tomorrow:

When those called to lead refuse God's call, people get stuck with bad leaders. For every bad leader, three people may have refused God's call to lead (see Jgs 9:9-13). For every buckthorn, an olive tree, fig tree, and vine may have refused to make the sacrifices necessary to answer God's call. When our leaders come from the "bottom of the barrel," it means that those from the top and the middle of the barrel are disobeying God by refusing His call.

Source link.

I have seen this phenomenon up close. When the qualified and called turn away because they are too busy with other things, rest assured that there will be a mediocre and unsuitable person with a great desire to be the center of attention ready to become "the boss" of a particular ministry. And it is very hard to get rid of such mediocre people once they fulfill their dream of being in charge of something; their grip is very tight. So, when out of false humility, you seek to disqualify yourself from leadership--maybe, you should take time to think of the alternatives that will quickly and without hesitation step up to the plate and wonder which is worse: the mediocre alternative or you yourself, regardless of your known defects and imperfections. I seem to recall a similar insight in a play about St. Thomas More in which someone (I think the saint himself) took on a leadership role in part because of the looming alternative if he did not do the job himself.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Are We Worthy to Serve?

Quick answer: we certainly are not. Yet, Jesus chooses us anyway. Was Peter worthy to serve after denying Jesus three times? Was Paul worthy to serve after being an accomplice to the death by stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr? Were any of the apostles worthy to serve even if they bickered in an unseemly manner about who would be the greatest?

Three points come to mind when we are invited to assume leadership roles and when our first reaction is to pull back from the invitation:

1. It is a good sign to be genuinely and sincerely reluctant. One lesson from the Old Testament is clear: the one who wants to be king is not qualified to be king (see the parable of the trees in Judges 9 in the postscript below). The same is true of the great prophets: from Moses on, we have prophets who are reluctant. It's robustly healthy to be sincerely reluctant to take on leadership roles.

2. We keep falling back into the lie that leadership implies that we are somehow holier than others and that therefore we cannot take on such roles. Well, if anyone thinks leadership in the Church or in the parish implies greater holiness, then they are woefully naive and need to grow up. Someone has to do certain tasks which are more a matter of skills and reliability than comparative holiness.

3. Yet, at the same time, the leader must, all the more, strive to serve because Christian leadership is no more and no less than utterly humble foot washing. You have to practice that humility and ask for more of it continually. The real test for the Christian leader is not whether he or she is comparatively holier than others but whether he or she exhibits humility in service. If you are sincerely reluctant and if you can be humble, then you are ready to lead. Those to whom such reluctance or humility are foreign experiences, in contrast, should flee any leadership roles that they currently hold or that may be offered in the future, until they have these experiences.

Biblical Postscript:

Judges 9:8-15 (RSV) 8 The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them; and they said to the olive tree, `Reign over us.' 9 But the olive tree said to them, `Shall I leave my fatness, by which gods and men are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, `Come you, and reign over us.' 11 But the fig tree said to them, `Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to sway over the trees?' 12 And the trees said to the vine, `Come you, and reign over us.' 13 But the vine said to them, `Shall I leave my wine which cheers gods and men, and go to sway over the trees?' 14 Then all the trees said to the bramble, `Come you, and reign over us.' 15 And the bramble said to the trees, `If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'

Notice that the healthy and fruitful trees were reluctant to take over because they were content and fulfilled with their current situation. Notice that the bramble, though, was eager to be anointed king over the trees even though he did not really have much to offer.

Friday, August 14, 2009

No Big Deal

An interesting article at pours cold water on the hyperbole about the infamous Woodstock concert held 40 years ago (see link). The writer, who attended the event as a teenager, opines that the event was unimpressive then and remains unimpressive now.

It's refreshing to read a piece that goes counter to the counterculture hype. So many things that are celebrated by many and by the media are really no big deal. I get that sense when we get a lot of coverage of the illnesses or deaths of celebrities in the political and entertainment worlds (these worlds converge in reality). Every day thousands are stricken with cancer, yet we are expected to put at the top of our prayer lists the latest celebrity over the anonymous Joes and Janes who are suffering a similarly tragic misfortune. Why do celebrities go to the top of the list? Yes, let's pray for all without exception but why prefer the rich and famous over the "unrich" and unknown? As Christians, we should pray for all conditions of men, as the famous collect says, and not prefer the rich over others. That, I submit is a crucial message in the too often neglected Letter to James:

James 2:1-3 RSV 1 My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "Have a seat here, please," while you say to the poor man, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Do we do this very thing, at times, even with the focus of our prayers? You judge.

Our culture makes a big deal even over things that are actually unwise and self-destructive. You see this trait in the glamorization of promiscuity and lust. Will someone ask the question that begs to be asked: Does it really make you happy? I often think that many really believe that nothing can really make you happy--that's why there is a manic embrace of the self-destructive as a sort of fling of despair. Will someone ask if accumulating a lot of monetary assets will really make you happy? Will someone ask if attending rock concerts one after another will really make you happy? Lately, in talking to a friend, I have repeated this advice: "Ask the stupid question." Let's ask the stupid questions that everyone else is too sophisticated to ask. It's a good habit to cultivate in the classroom and in the streets.


Here is the famous collect from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which I mentioned above:

A Prayer for All Conditions of Men.

O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [* especially those for whom our prayers are desired;] that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them, according to their several necessities; giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

Source link.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Old Neighborhood

A Polish-American friend of mine hosted some friends and me on a weekend excursion into the old Polish enclave of Hamtramck, which is surrounded by Detroit proper (Detroit is a very Polish city, probably second only to Chicago). The first stop was Mass at St. Florian's Church (photo above). I am not an art historian, but the altar was truly magnificent. Next, we went to the very comfortably cool, immaculate Polish Cultural Center which is basically a well-tended shop full of souvenirs from the old country. We also made a stop at the modern Polish market which specializes, you guessed it, in stocking a cornucopia of food products from Poland. The area is still full of recent arrivals from Poland.

But the culmination was dinner in the unpretentious Under the Eagle Polish restaurant adorned with photos of celebrities including the two George Bushes and photos of the 1987 visit by John Paul the Great to Hamtramck. The fellowship was great and memorable--true koinonia as celebrated in the New Testament.

What gives such character to places that are, in effect, old ethnic enclaves? (Note: this enclave now has a diverse population that goes well beyond the different regions of Poland.) For me, personally speaking, such places bespeak a simplicity and unpretentiousness that are lacking in what I call the affluent "show-off" suburbs which I find to be very off-putting and very cold. Pretentiousness rooted in insecurity tends to be that way. In contrast, the old neighborhood (and there are still many with many different ethnic roots throughout this land) has the simplicity of people who arrived only recently and who are simply happy to have made it to the land of freedom. Yes, Mary was right when she prophesied in the Magnificat that the Lord fills up the poor but leaves the rich empty-handed. We don't need the show-off suburbs to be content. In fact, we may need to avoid them in order to be content.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Vocations "Crisis" & Some Prayer Lessons

For how many years have we heard the incessant refrain about the vocations "crisis" and the requests for prayer for more laborers for the harvest. Well, in light of decades of that constant hand-wringing, it is quite astonishing to me that I know of at least two young men who have answered the call but face the financial worries of how to pay for college seminary (the undergraduate portion of seminary education). To be honest, it puts a bit of righteous anger in me to compare the almost whining tone that I have heard for years about the priest shortage and to see that the ones who finally answer the call are beset with financial worries. It does not make sense to me.

So, we pray for more priestly vocations. And Adonai answers these petitions. And then we put obstacles in the way. What is wrong with this picture? Were our prayers really sincere? When we ask for something from Adonai in good faith, that surely must mean that we are willing to cooperate with Adonai. If I seek healing, I have to be willing to stretch forth my hand to receive the healing. If I seek an opportunity to teach, then I had better prepare myself. It does not make sense to ask someone for the use of a car and then refuse to drive it. Adonai has and does grant us immense opportunities in response to our prayers, but we have to take some steps. That is a lesson that applies toward all petitions, including the petition for more priestly vocations. It is good to ask ourselves: if Adonai steps up to the plate and answers our prayers, what are we going to do then? Do we really want that for which we are praying?

For example, if a person prays to meet his or her future spouse and Adonai does send that person, does it then make sense for someone to refuse to risk a courtship out of some kind of fear of failure? If a person prays for healing, does it make sense then to refuse an opportunity to receive healing prayer? If a person prays for the welfare of the Church, does it make sense to refuse the charismatic gifts that build up the Church?

We have to be ready to correspond. Answered prayer is not a matter of some purely passive acceptance but of stepping up to the challenge. Let's hope that more dioceses will figure that out when their prayers for priestly vocations are finally answered. Meet the Lord halfway once He acts.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stop and Ponder

We hear it again and again as Catholics and as Christians: "Take more time to pray," "It is essential to pray daily," etc. Today's Mass reading from the book of Psalms gives us a practical insight into this necessity:

I remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I remember your wonders of old.
And I meditate on your works;
your exploits I ponder.

Source link (from Psalm 77).

In the accompanying Mass reading from Deuteronomy 4:32-40 (see same source link above), Moses urges the people to "fix" in their hearts all the marvelous deeds that Adonai has done to bring them out of the house of bondage in Egypt.

Why recall and ponder these deeds, wonders, works, and signs? Because they get us ready for today and tomorrow. Each day we decide several questions: Whom should I follow? What should I follow? Who is worth following? Who or what is the sure guide to reality that will lead me to safety, happiness, and fulfillment?

Only by pondering the credentials, the track record, of Adonai can we remain determined to live out his will today and tomorrow. The pondering prepares us to choose again and again to follow Him, instead of our own flawed schemes or the flawed schemes, expectations, and manipulations of others. (Notice also the Gospel reading for today stating that he who seeks to save his life will lose it--yes, by seeking to "save" our lives with our own flawed schemes, we will surely lose it; see source link above.) That pondering of the mighty deeds of Adonai is prayer, prayer which naturally issues in awe, wonder, praise, and thanksgiving as the fruits of that pondering of his kind deeds for us.

And ponder not just the deeds recorded in the Bible--also and especially ponder what He has just done for you, whether in the last hour or yesterday or in the past month or year. Too often, we miss the signals for the future in our discernment by failing to stop and examine our days. That is why the daily examen is a part of the Catholic spiritual tradition. Stop the noise, stop the business, and listen, especially before the Blessed Sacrament when possible, to find out what you must do next. Doing for the sake of doing is useless and often self-destructive unless it is the doing we must do. Only by taking the time to ponder the signs and deeds of Adonai in each of our lives can we find out what we must do next. Otherwise, we will not even know our own lives as they quickly pass, like water, through our fingers (credit to St. Josemaría Escrivá).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Friendship Is the Paradigm

It's the paradigm, in my experience and in that of others, for evangelization and for healing. Some friends have been through traumatic transitions from previous callings (whether they are transitions from failed marriages or from some other failed vocation)--they have been touched by God's healing and forgiveness but need the continuing affirmation of strong Christian friendship and fellowship to refresh and reinvigorate their lives in order to move forward. Others may have difficult issues that leave them isolated and even ignored by many who should know better. One very difficult issue is that of persons with same-sex attractions. Many of us who are happily heterosexual need to learn to pay attention to the challenges faced by such persons and to seek to bring them a word of hope, as they struggle to live according to Catholic morality. In my opinion, this area is the most challenging one with which to deal.

As usual, when we give friendship to those with the healthy capacity for friendship, we unwittingly gain back what we give. We also receive affirmation and fellowship in return. I am also convinced that Adonai uses challenging situations in the lives of others to push us to greater growth in compassion and understanding as our minds and hearts are forced to stretch to address issues that are not easy. Clearly, such a life or apostolate is just too much for our puny brains and always too narrow hearts. The only way to do it is to entrust all our acts to Jesus and let him make us a channel of his agape for the other. Then we can learn to relax and just be the friends God created us to be. Even if we do not have a specific road map for a person, we can simply listen and be present. The One who does have the road map will pipe up, sooner or later, as long as we have ears to hear.

Update: One of our readers sends this link to a Wall St. Journal article addressing the issue of Christians' seeking to overcome same-sex attractions. I do not necessarily agree with everything stated or quoted in the article but do find the article of great interest. Please feel free to share your own reactions or cautions about the article in the comment boxes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Truth in Secular Places

Often, we Christians can, little by little, acquire a "ghetto" mentality--as if the rest of the culture has nothing at all of value in it. Catholics should find it easier to avoid that trap because the Catholic vision is that there are seeds and rays of truth in all constructive human endeavors, even non-Christian ones. We believe that all of those nuggets of truth are objectively related to Jesus who is the Truth, whether or not the persons involved are aware of that relation to Jesus, whether or not the persons involved even like or welcome the idea of such an objective relation to Jesus. This vision is how the early Church Fathers were able to fruitfully engage with and evangelize the culturally rich pagan culture that surrounded them.

Here is an excerpt from a N.Y. Times column that captures a truth that we Christians knew or should have known all along, a nugget of truth where we might least expect it. It's a column about marital troubles. Here is an excerpt:

The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal.

Source link.

This insight reminds me of something I recall seeing recently on the cover of a Catholic CD (my paraphrase): there is a vacancy within us that only God can fill.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Negative Impressions of Others

It is unavoidable to have negative impressions about persons with whom we deal. Yet, it is very practical and realistic to remember, when sorting out our negative impressions, the mercy recommended by the Gospel. Often, we wonder why some people do not smile at all or very rarely. We wonder by some people seem avoidant or fearful or unnecessarily nervous about interacting with others. Behind all of that, there may be some cross, some burden, some fear that they deal with on a regular basis, something very real and maybe very painful to them about which we have absolutely no clue (and often it is appropriate that we should have no clue about such matters because of their very personal or private nature). Such things may involve some chronic illness affecting them or someone close to them, some distant or recent bad experiences, even instances of past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. In certain cases it is very fitting to endure what may seem to be socially odd reactions by being patient and by giving the benefit of the doubt. I say "certain cases" because I am not recommending blanket endurance of actively abusive behavior. I am thinking of learning to endure those whose behavior may be socially unusual but not abusive, materially disruptive, aggressive, or harmful. Many like to repeat the famous saying of St. John of the Cross, which seems especially apt for such ambiguous situations: "where there is no love, put love and you will find love"--even if it may take a long time to find it. I have seen some cases where eventually the love does emerge after lengthy interactions over a significant period of time, as fears are slowly overcome. As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:7, agape bears and endures all things and so wins in the end.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Lies That Hold Us Back

There is no way that I can give an exhaustive list of the false assumptions, fears, and lies that hold us back from flourishing as our Creator means for us to flourish. I recall the lyrics of a Christian song in which the singer expresses his desire to be the child that God created him to be. What can stand in the way?

1. An irrational fear of the unfavorable opinions of others. Many of those others don't have a clue about God's plan for themselves, much less of God's plan for you.

2. An irrational emphasis on the worst possible outcomes as we contemplate daring courses of action. If it works, great. If it doesn't, Adonai (Hebrew for "Lord") will reward us in unexpected ways just for trying in good faith.

3. Failure to see that what we really fear in many situations is injury to our pride and vanity. With genuine humility that gives detachment from fearing such "ego-injuries," we gain a freedom, boldness, and peace which is our Christian inheritance. If we are ready to humble ourselves, few mishaps can really destroy us. Contrary to what we may usually assume, humility is the best protection when things go wrong.

4. A refusal to believe that Adonai will send others to us who will reach out and love us when we need help. This refusal often results in looking a gift horse in the mouth when we turn away in fear from others who seek to come to our aid.

Add to the list and be liberated from the lies that hold us back from being the child Adonai created us to be--a child of joy, hope, peace, and trust.