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Celebration or Competition?

Is our life in the church meant to be a celebration or a competition?  

Well, what do the Gospels say?  Fifteen times is the gathering of the Body of Christ described as a feast, banquet, or the like.  Only once (Matthew 25 – “When did I see you hungry, naked, in prison…”) is a scene of judgment described.  (And that one scene is important.  How we treat the poor and marginalized matters.)

I think, too often though, we do not share this vision of celebration given by the Gospels.  There is sense of competition, an unspoken understanding that we can win or be better than another at a life of faith.  The narrative of competition can be implicit and subtle and exists in both progressive and more traditional tribes of the church.  (The irony is, those who are most developed in faith know acutely that they are not better than anyone else.)

Certainly, life is not a celebration all the time, nor is it meant to feel that way.  There is work, sometimes very difficult work, to be done to be ever more hospitable at the celebration.  

But we do not do this work to win.  We do the work because we have been loved first… and then we celebrate.

Leaking

Our son was home sick from school this week, so (over Legos and audiobooks) he got to see me running around, trying to do too many things, and stressed out about work.

At one point in the morning, he asked me, “Papa – are you mad at me?”

Oof.  It hurts to hear this.  And I honestly wasn’t.  He was occupying himself brilliantly.  So what was going on?

I think that my face and my tone were leaking stress and tension.

My eyes can’t see my face (not without a mirror) and so I cannot tell when my face shows strain.  And the part of our brains (the superior temporal sulcus) that reads emotion in tone of voice actually switches off when we ourselves are speaking. (More about this in chapter 4 of this brilliant book.)  So, I leak emotion all the time, and I am blind to the emotion I leak.  Yikes!

For me, the next question is: Will I get curious about what I am leaking?  That is, will I slow down and acknowledge what I am feeling?

And then another: Who can help me see what I am blind to?  For honest answers, perhaps best to start with a child.  

Worst Spiritual Director

Imagine if a spiritual director were to do the following:

-Convince the directee to continually steal time from their contemplative practice, and even subtly doubt the worth of such a practice at all.

-Fan the flames of dead-end, obsessive thought.

-Rationalize habits that are not life-giving.

-Cast doubt on one’s ability to find and follow their vocation.

-Cast doubt on one’s basic goodness or the fact that one is loved.

It is laughable to even imagine, right? We would not put up with such talk even for a short time from a spiritual director.

We do, too often though, put up with such talk from our mind’s inner chatter.  

Put another way: It is possible that, sometimes, we may be our own worst spiritual director.

Of course, it does not have to be that way.  Simply seeing such chatter drains it of its power, and then we can ask for the grace to act like a fine spiritual director… one who can self-empty, see compassionately, and gently welcome the directee into the graced mystery of their life.

The Welcome Kit

When a Foreign Service Officer arrives in a new country, a “welcome kit” is waiting for them in their home.  It is a big box of everything the household might need before their belongings arrive in a moving truck.

In terms of quality, think of something that is absolutely above reproach if someone were hunting for a place to trim the budget.  You’ve got some basic sheets.  The cheapest coffee maker.  One plate, bowl, mug, glass for each person living in the house.  A set of pots and pans. A can opener that will exact a price from your knuckles if used.

It is an odd gift, sitting in your house for you on arrival, waiting to be unwrapped.

But it honestly can be a gift, if I let it.  In using the kit, something designed to meet only the most basic needs, I am shown how few my actual needs are.  And so, when our things return, they take up less space in my life.  
With this spaciousness, I am able to see more clearly that everything is a gift… this morning, my loved ones, this world, our existence.  That mindset is a fun place to live.

Two Clarities

Daily silent prayer helps us arrive at a place of inner clarity.

The extended solitude of annual silent retreat also helps us arrive at a place of inner clarity.

The experience of these clarities is distinct, and both help us to see to those things in our lives that are of ultimate value and engage them with great love and courage. 

Slowly, Slowly

After college, I moved with some other recent graduates to a fairly rural town in Eastern Uganda.

When we would meet local folks for the first time, they would not infrequently toss the word mpolampola, often translated as “slowly, slowly,” into the exchange.

“Wait, what?” I would think. “How did that make sense as part of this conversation?”

But it makes perfect sense. It is a fantastic reminder for a Westerner generally, and especially one encountering a new place and culture.

Moving too quickly, either outwardly or within our own heads, we miss the remarkableness of where and when we are living. 

Moving slowly, though, we can experience the richness of the vulnerability of life, particularly at a transition.

If You Can Spot It

An older priest at our parish growing up used to work the following aphorism into homilies a few times a year.  He would say, “If you can spot it, you got it.”  

That is, if you notice a flaw in another person, chances are, you have the same thing going on.

Not super scientific, but so often true.

This is another way into the reality that advice is autobiographical.

Handing Over the Keys

Today, we move to Germany, the beginning of a two-year stay.

To prepare for our move, a few days ago, I took our car to CarMax to sell.

I like to _think_ that I am a person who is generally unattached to belongings. And our car is not fancy, a little lowest-trim-level SUV, purchased in 2018, also at a CarMax. But when the nice lady handed me a check and asked for my keys, I got really sad! I was attached to our unremarkable car!

In this period of transition, I’ve been thinking that a (or maybe _the_?) central task in the spiritual life is letting go… relinquishing everything that is not of the love that is God. And we are not instinctively good at this. It takes practice… not _thinking_ about doing it – but actually doing it. Actually handing over the keys, freed for something better.

The Keeper of Slack in the Family System

For years, when I was home full-time with our son (and then sons), I would change up how I answered the question: “So, what do you do?” One day, I heard myself answer: “Well, I am the keeper of slack in our family system.”

And, you know, I kind of liked that title! I began to use it more often and so began to take it more seriously.

I tried to be the keeper of slack *outwardly*, leaving time unscheduled so that I could be present and responsive to family.

I also tried to guard against tension *internally*, building prayer and meditation into my days, hoping to be more attentive and loving.

I must say that I do not feel necessarily accomplished at this guardianship, and definitely less so this year than in years past. But I am still trying, and would love for the “keeper of slack in the family system” to be a common term. It would certainly help me follow through more consistently on this sincere aspiration.

It Is Not Too Late

I am ruthlessly protective of my email inbox, subscribing to nothing that is not (to me) consistently valuable. 

A few months ago, the number of things I subscribe to went from two to three.

I signed up for The Daily Difference, the free email published by The Carbon Almanac Network, a source of reliable and easily understandable knowledge on climate change.  Their tagline is: It is not too late.

It is consistently excellent.  No doom, no guilt, no whipping up negative emotion.  Just fascinating, simple insights about how to care for the earth and then tell your friends.

It consistently fills me with hope, and helps me to believe and to act like it is not too late. 

The Sacramentality of Our Lives

The other day, I met up with an old friend who I had not seen for some time.  These types of conversations lend themselves to asking big questions.  Lately, I’ve noticed that, as we get older, both the questions and the answers are becoming more simple.

We asked each other: “What is it that we need right now?”  The answer that we came to was: “to slow down enough to attend to the sacramentality of our lives.”  There it was.  Full stop.

Perhaps more than any other habit, the Examen (prayed with as much consistency as I can muster) helps me to do this.  Appreciation for this form of prayer, as well as our belief that young people have a unique and innate capacity to receive the love of God woven into their lives, led Katie Broussard and I to create The Examen Book.

We are delighted to launch the book this week.  We hope that you will check it out and that it becomes a blessing on your journey.

(PS – If you would like to be one of our first reviewers, email me!  We’ll send you access to the reviewer’s digital version of the book.)

I Don’t Like That!

When our sons are playing, they often fall out of sync.  One begins playing in a way that the other does not like.  The dissatisfied one, then, expresses his displeasure to us about what the other is doing.

We then say, “Please tell your brother how you do want to play.”

And almost always, he will turn to his brother and, focusing once more on the perceived offense, say, “I don’t like that!”

As you surely have noticed, “I don’t like that!” is not a satisfactory articulation of how he would like to engage.

But how often do we do this very thing in public life!  We are experts at saying what we do not like or do not want, and too rarely take the time to articulate a different way forward.  It feels more comfortable to comment instead of contribute

So, if we do not like something that is happening, let’s agree to do the most courageous and productive thing: To say what we do want and what we will commit to in order to bring that thing about.  With imagination and commitment, we can play together differently.

Earning the Miracle?

Our family is fairly in love with the movie Encanto.  Every time we (routinely) listen to the soundtrack, this bit from the introductory “meet the family” song catches my attention.

It’s when the grandma tells us about how the family can “earn the miracle that somehow found us.”

The trouble, as they all learn, is that we can’t earn a miracle.  

The compulsion to try to earn the miracle of our lives, though, is deeply human and imminently understandable.  If I were to earn it, the logic goes, then I would have some control over it.  And how does my ego love to control!

But the wonder of the sacramentality of our lives… the grace woven through our being, the natural world, our relationships, the unfolding of our vocations… is already ours.  No earning necessary.  It’s taken care of. 

The task, then, is to receive these things whole-heartedly and without pretense, as a child.  So freed, we can respond to this abundance with wild generosity.

Four or More?

I went to the doctor for a routine check up last month.  One of the questions on the intake questionnaire was:

“Have you participated in the gather of a religious or civic organization at least four times in the past year?”

Fascinating.

Fascinating that four per year is the threshold chosen.

Fascinating that the medical community listens to this data.

Rooting in a reality larger than ourselves is good for us, on multiple levels.  How can we create a world where the number on this questionnaire is much higher than four?

The First Task

The first time that I met with a spiritual director, he gave me a simple practice to do every day.

Each morning, I was to go into the chapel for 15 minutes, be quiet, and experience how much I was loved by God.

(And the word might not have been experience… it might have been listen or contemplate or the like… but the point was to know that I am loved.)

Predictably, I immediately fell short on multiple levels.  I did not wake up early enough.  The chatter in my mind never quieted.  I exerted way too much effort.  I became attached to my evaluation of each session. 

Seventeen years later, I see this practice, to know that we are loved just as we are, is the practice of a lifetime.  This experience anchors us, roots us, and enables a bold life lived out of this love.

I still show up to the practice, however imperfectly, knowing that I do not control the experience.  The result is not up to me.  My job is show up consistently… to ready the sails for whenever the wind would blow.

Hiding Under the Mess

When our sons can’t find the toy or the book that they are looking for, we’ve learned that the most productive thing to do is to start cleaning up the mess.  When we clean up, we inevitably find the thing we were looking for.

The mess is where things go to hide.

In our church and world, there is plenty of mess.  And by mess, I do not mean conflict.  Conflict can be healthy and will always be with us.  

The mess I mean is what happens when we do not practice empathy on the “other side” of the conflict, choosing instead to whip up the indignation of “our side” against the other.  This failure of empathy creates a mess: layers of wrecked communication, triggered egos, activated amygdalas.  This mess confuses the important issue at hand and barricades us more deeply on our illusory moral high ground.

Too often, the mess is where we go to hide, and almost always unconsciously.  Hide from our own vocation, our own capacity for connection, commitment, and contribution.  

It is far easier to focus on someone else’s mess than to do the hard work we are meant to do.

Holiness, I think, consists in realizing that we are not better than anyone else and all need grace in a profound way.  This humility frees us to begin to clean up the mess and find the love we were seeking in the first place.

Opening the Next Door

I am a big fan of our realtor, particularly in how she introduces us to a home on the market.

She is calm and kind as she walks with us through a new space, attentive to any question that we might have. And while offering this warm presence, she also seems to be one step ahead. Somehow she is always able to turn on the lights in the next room and to open the doors, closets, and cabinets.

Her seasoned attentiveness frees us to see more than we might, and act, free of pressure, from this expanded vision.

Folks who are skilled at accompaniment do something similar, I think. They are able to tune in, freed from their own inner chatter. Their attentive, generous presence helps us see our own experience in better light. Their questions open doors and turn on the light switch that we couldn’t quite reach.

What would it take for the church to be a network of people who accompany each other like this?

Isolated Conscience

We know the conscience to be the “most secret core and sanctuary of a [person]. There [we are] alone with God, Whose voice echoes in [our] depths.” (Gaudium et Spes, 16) 

The capacity of conscience, though, is not automatic.  It needs certain things to grow.  Grace, certainly, and particularly in the form of encounter with people of varied experience as well as space to reflectively integrate this encounter.  Conscience thus formed leads us to a life animated by and in the service to deep love.

The silos of our world (often ideological, reinforced by social media algorithms and the pesky confirmation bias) hem in our consciences, and make the above ideal hard to experience. 

Pope Francis names this as the isolated conscience, and calls out its contours in Let Us Dream.   

“The indignation of the isolated conscience begins in unreality, passes through Manichaean fantasies that divide the world into good and bad (with themselves always on the good side), and ends in different kinds of violence: verbal, physical, and so on.”

Oof.  

Isolated conscience is no joke.  And it is often subtle, leading to barricading oneself on the moral high ground and limiting one’s love.

How do I participate in the un-silo-ing of my own conscience?  

How might I approach another so that they feel freed to participate in their un-silo-ing?

Same Team!

When I was around seven years old, I started playing YMCA soccer.  Soccer is a tough sport for kids that young and we were, predictably, not very good.

I recall that we would often be so scattered on the field that, without realizing it, we would try to take the ball from our own players. 

When this would happen, our beleaguered coach would yell across the field: “Same team! Same team!”  

He hoped that we would stop, understand what is going on around us, and play with more awareness and teamwork. 

In work, in family, and in the church, we could use someone calling out that we are on the same team.  If we are mired in pettiness or turf battles, recalling that we are on the same team can give us the energy we need to get close enough to love.

Abandon, as in Love or Sleep

This is one of my favorite poems.

And my favorite bit in the poem is:

“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”

And the word I’ve wondered the most about in that line is

Abandon.

Does it mean “with abandon,” like how a child engages a beloved task?

Or is there an actual abandoning of something non-essential?  A relinquishing?

Perhaps both.  

And if so: What must we relinquish to live into our vocations with abandon?

Laying Out the Pieces

A few weeks ago, when we were together for Easter, my sister’s son did the following for our older son.

As our son was putting his lego set together, his cousin carefully laid out the remaining pieces.

Good spiritual direction does something similar, I think. From a tangle of experience, a loving director is capable of mirroring back our experience in such a way that invites us into clarity.

Show Me the Way

In a poignant scene from the movie Romero, the saint is kneeling in prayer and says the following:

I can’t.

You must.

I’m yours.

Show me the way. 

The first time I heard it, I assumed that each line was a prayer uttered by Romero. So:

I can’t. (as prayer uttered)

You must. (as prayer uttered)

I’m yours. (as prayer uttered)

Show me the way. (as prayer uttered)

I have since wondered if this understanding is also possible:

I can’t. (as prayer uttered)

You must. (as answer received)

I’m yours. (as prayer uttered)

Show me the way. (as prayer received)

Or also, if this understanding is possible:

I can’t. (as answer received)

You must. (as answer received)

I’m yours. (as answer received)

Show me the way. (as answer received)

Other understandings are also conceivable, I think.  Each is a remarkable thing to consider as we take charge of the weight of reality.

Hand Them the Chalk

Think of that person who gets under your skin.  Maybe they do something that you do not like.  Maybe they do not believe what you believe or think how you think.

What would happen, though, if you became genuinely, intentionally curious about them?  What if there was no aversion, only an intense desire to learn how they see the world?

Here is one way in.  Picture yourself in a classroom with them.  Now, hand them the chalk and go sit down.  Let them teach you.  Don’t interrupt them.  Don’t prepare a rebuttal while they are talking.  Let them really sketch it all out for you.  Let them cover the whole board.

When we are able to listen like this, a whole world opens up.  Our vision becomes expansive.  We see that they, like us, carry fear, and this fear makes us all do things that don’t make sense.  We see a way forward in relationship.   

These days, I think this is what is meant, in the prayer of St. Francis, by the lines: “O Master, let me not seek as much…to be understood as to understand…”

The Empty Tomb

Have you read Pope Francis’ Easter Vigil homily?  It is worth it.  

This part was a gift to me.

“The first proclamation of the resurrection was not a statement to be unpacked, but a sign to be contemplated. In a burial ground, near a grave, in a place where everything should be orderly and peaceful, the women “found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they went in, they did not find the body” (vv. 2-3). Easter begins by upsetting our expectations. It comes with the gift of a hope that surprises and amazes us.” (emphasis added)

How can contemplation of this image, this sign, be a gift to us in places where we are stuck?

One More Paradox

Can I add one more paradox to the list of apparent contradictions that, when lived into, lead to a life of deep love?

Here it is.

That we have to feel and believe that we are enough in this moment in order to be transformed.

Put another way, the Spiritual Exercises have us, “know well that I’m loved even though oh so flawed” and lead on to “offer all I possess, beg for my stony-heart thawed, and act from a deep love, the love that is God.

The Opposite of Hope

What if we understood presumption to be the opposite of hope?

The presumption that only “we” have anything of worth to say.  That if it is not our truth, then it is a lie.  That truly listening to those people is not worth my time.  That fatalism is the only honest way to face the facts.

Presumption is one way to buffer ourselves from the weight of reality which, considered with clear perception, is quite heavy.  

Hope, though, entails a creative impulse that holds our engagement of reality ajar to love, to courage, and to daily commitment to take charge of the weight of reality.  

I do not think this “hope-holding-us-ajar” movement is something we do on our own, but it is possible to pray for.

Turning Down and Tuning In

Every time we sit down to talk with another person, it is, in a sense, a double date. We are each there, of course, but we have also brought along our inner voice, that chatter in our head about how the world (and the other person) should be.

That chatter keeps us from attending to the other, truly walking with them and loving them.

And we all have the chatter. (The times when we think we don’t are when it can get in the way the most.)

This chatter (and so the double date aspect) will never entirely go away, but conversations (and, over years, relationships) go better when we each do our part to turn down the volume on this inner commentary.

How to turn down the chatter? My best answer at the moment is to: 1) see it when it arises, and gently let it go, over and over for years, and 2) root in a reality bigger than ourselves so we do not think we need the chatter to control the world.

Let’s learn to turn down the chatter to tune in to each other.

Logistics of the One-Hour Clearness Committee on Zoom

Last week, I wrote that a few friends and I had adapted a Quaker “clearness committee” process to accompany one another.  Here is a description of how we adapted the process.

1. We read this article about the original process, so we could incorporate as much of it as we could into our limited version.

2. We committed to this process with each other, nominated a first focus person, and then set a date and time for the first meeting.  (And we schedule successive meetings / nominate the next focus person as one meeting concludes.) 

3. The week before, the focus person sends the group a write up (usually 2-3 pages) giving an account of where they find themselves in their vocation, conceived broadly.  (We have followed the article (See point #2) and included “a concise statement of the problem,” “relevant background,” and “hunches for what is on the horizon”.)  

4. We meet at the scheduled time for one hour.  The focus person briefly recaps their write-up and then the others ask honest, open-ended questions (See point #6) that the focus person can answer or simply consider.

5. In the final minutes, the group reflects back to the focus person something significant that they saw or heard during the process.  (For example, they might reflect back when they saw the focus person was most animated.) 

6. Following the session, the scribe emails the group with a list of questions that were asked.  (The questions are often significant gifts to the others in the group.)

The point is for the focus person to listen to what occurs within them… where is their desire, where are they hiding or evading?  All parts of the structure are at the service of this listening.

Seeing What Matters, Clearly

A “clearness committee” is a Quaker ritual in which a “focus person” who is approaching an important life decision gathers trusted friends, presents context relevant to the upcoming discernment, and invites, for three hours, those gathered to ask kenotic, open-ended questions to help the person consider the issue more deeply. At the end of the three hours, those gathered reflect back to the focus person what they have seen and heard.

The main point is to hold a space for the focus person to listen to what arises within them during the process. Put another way, the exercise lovingly introduces material for the discernment of spirits.

I’ve never done this complete process, perhaps because of a lack of initiative and imagination or due to constraints of time and physical distance.

I have, though, once a month for the past five months, gathered on Zoom with four dear friends (and also fathers) for one hour for a simplified clearness committee. We sign on, from California, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, briefly catch up, and dive in. (I’ll write next week explaining how we have modified the process.)

It is so simple, and such a profound gift. When else have I been offered questions (that is to say, invitations to a fuller life) out of deep love and hope from friends I have known for 15+ years? What would replace the intimacy of knowing and engaging another’s history in this way?

This sort of thing takes initiative and dedication of precious time. And it is all too easy to put off until tomorrow.

Joyful Messengers of Challenging Proposals

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes that we should appear as “joyful messengers of challenging proposals.”*

Proposals, so as to invite others in, open to the next stage of the journey.

Challenging, because that is what our times demand (and an enticing challenge is inherently attractive).

Messengers, because none of us is the Messiah.

Joyful, because we have been deeply loved.

I took a shot at doing just this for a Lenten Retreat at Jesuits.org.  Click the link for the video where I steal my sons’ white board and sketch up a challenging proposal!

*Here is the whole sentence, from paragraph 168: “Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat or deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”

People Who Remember That They Are Dust

Yesterday, we were told that we were dust. If someone internalizes and lives by this, being in their presence is a remarkable thing. The quote below from Sr. Joan Chittister’s book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily names well what I mean.

“People who are really humble, who know themselves to be earth or humus – the root from which our word “humble” comes – have about themselves an air of self-containment and self-control. There’s no haughtiness, no distance, no sarchasm, no put downs, no airs of importance or disdain. The ability to deal with both their own limitations and the limitations of others, the recognition that God is in life and that they are not in charge of the universe brings serenity and hope, inner peace and real energy. Humble people walk comfortably in every group… And because they’re at ease with themselves, they can afford to be open with others…”

(And here is the big one.)

“Humility is not a false rejection of God’s gifts. To exaggerate the gifts we have by denying them may be as close to narcissism as we get in life. No, humility is the admission of God’s gifts to me and the acknowledgement that I have been given them for others. Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.” (emphasis added)

The presence of people like this is transformative. That is, when we meet someone thus centered, we want to become more like them. So, for Lent, let’s go find and cherish some truly humble people.

The Box on the Board

I once had a teacher do the following.

At the start of class, he walked silently to the board. He slowly drew two parallel horizontal lines, and then connected them into a rectangle with two vertical lines. (By this time, we were all quiet, watching.) He then asked us a question: “What do you see?”

Every answer tried to describe what he had drawn. A box? A TV? A picture frame?

After some time, his response to us was: “Why are you all only talking about these four lines? My question to you was ‘what do you see?’ You could have chosen anything in this whole room, yet you are all fixated here.”

He was right. He had never told us to describe or even look at the rectangle.

The point of the exercise has stuck with me: we allowed what he drew on the board to corral our thinking, to limit our vision and conversation. And this led to the even more important question: how, outside of the class, do we unreflectively allow our vision to be limited?

If we allow [insert dominant cultural narrative] or [insert news outlet] or [insert social media platform] or [insert cultural turf battle] to frame our thoughts, it will surely limit how we see and think and live.

Relying on outside sources of information is, of course, inescapable, but it is always worth it to consider how a given source corrals the conversation and might get us stuck in an unproductive pattern.

Every day, we can choose to get unstuck by choosing a wider frame and starting a new conversation.

The Capacity for Paradox

A paradox is a statement that seems at first consideration to be self-contradictory but, when lived into, can reveal an exquisite truth.

That desire can lead to pain, but also is the heart of a vocation.

That children can both raze and resurrect the life of a parent.

That I have to be ok being alone in order to be free to love another.

And the big one: That life can spring from death.  (That is, that the cross is our hope.)

I find that the people who are capable of living with paradox are able to live with extraordinary love.  Let’s pray for this capacity every day.

Endurance and Finesse

I love the Olympic biathlon. Skiers negotiate a grueling cross-country course and, at varying levels of exhaustion, must stop and take aim at a tiny target that sits half a football field away.

It is a brilliant challenge of two aspects of physical excellence: endurance and finesse.

That is to say, it is like parenting. A parent, like a biathlete, must develop endurance. (The job is never done, really.) And, while quite tired, the parent must be able to switch gears in a moment to attend gently, care tenderly, or deeply consider a deep, unbidden inquiry.

Let’s pray for parents to have the grace to develop both capacities generously.

No More Days

One Saturday afternoon some months ago, our five-year-old and I were doing puzzles.  Then, with a wild non-sequitor, he said something I will never forget.

He asked: “Papa?  What happens when we have no more days?”

Assuming (correctly) that he was asking about death, I evaded awkwardly.  “You mean…like… when we have no more days in the weekend?  When Monday comes?  Or no more days in this house?  Like when we move back to the US?

I felt panicked.  I could think of nothing to say.

He was thoroughly (and appropriately) underwhelmed.

I surely failed to answer his inquiry that day.  He has, though, asked at other times and in different ways.  My answer has slowly improved.  

And as he asks these questions, I consider the life I want to live before I have no more days.  I pray that my “lived answer” to this challenge is improving also. 

Our son’s questions focus my mind and my guts on the things of ultimate importance, one more way in which he has been God’s grace to me.

Do You Think I Have To?

We recently potty-trained our two-year-old. He is fairly independent now. Sometimes, though, he will come to me and ask, “Do you think I have to pee?”

This is, of course, hilarious, and also illustrative of a fascinating human dynamic. There are things that only he, over the course of a life, can know and do only as an individual, as a subject. For example, only he can attend to his inner life. Only he can have his relationship with God. Only he can live into his vocation. (And, of course, only he can know if he has to pee.)

And this is true for each of us. Certainly, I need companions on the journey, for the most important things, but only I can make my most important decisions.

Too often, we externalize responsibility onto things outside of ourselves regarding those themes that only we can know and decide. We look for someone or something to follow instead of listening to our distinct call of how to live in the world.

Better to attune to our experience and make the next best decision.

Memory and Freedom

A sign of interior freedom is the ability to recall one’s past with clear-eyed honesty. This, I think, is true as an individual as well as a collective (as a Christian or an American, say).

The honest recollection of failure is particularly useful. If we resist whitewashing or banishing our failures, they can teach us to live gracefully into the future. This recollection helps us take ourselves less seriously and ask for help more readily; that is, to live in freedom.

And on a lighter note: If we recall with clear eyes the power and tenderness of being accompanied by God and friends of God, we have the strength to live with interior freedom even in the moments when this accompaniment seems distant.

The Sincerely Held Fiction

A fiction is, by definition, not true.

A sincerely held fiction is not true, but is held so tightly that it can appear (to the holder) to be a truth. Rooted in this clinging, social trouble grows.

When we see another person clinging to a sincerely held fiction, it is tricky to communicate with them about. (It is their “truth” after all.). One thing to do, though, is to get curious. How did this person come to cling to this sincerely held fiction?

Trickier still is seeing the dynamic in ourselves. We are blind to our blind spots.

So then. What do we do in order to get perspective on our own sincerely held fictions?

Cultural Ballast

In a large ship, ballast is the stuff (usually water) loaded into the very bottom of the ship intended to provide balance and stability. Ballast can be taken on (to make the vessel more resistant to outside conditions) or disposed of (to make the ship more responsive).

As our culture steams ahead into the future, it is worthwhile to consider: what is our cultural ballast? That is, what have we picked up along the way (in the name of stability) that is making us less responsive to the demands of our time?

We can let go, individually and as a culture, of the things that hold us back. Ballast provides stability, but if stability is not what our times call for (or if it is an illusion) we do well to eliminate it.

One more related point. Biologically, discharged ballast water can have unintended consequences. For example, in 1991, zebra mussels hitched a ride in the ballast water of a cargo ship headed to New York, were released in the Hudson River, and began to dominate its ecosystem.

So, when we eliminate something we need to let go of, how can we do so in a way that avoids harmful, unintended consequences?

Urgent or Important

In 2022, will we dedicate time to those tasks that are seemingly urgent or that are truly important?

Improv and Contribution

When I was learning to program, each exercise was done in pairs.  One person had hands on the keyboard, while the other person narrated what to type next based on their vision of how to solve the problem at hand.

This is hard.  Like, extremely hard.  For a bunch of big reasons.  Chief among these reasons is the analysis each person does of the other.  I do not understand where this is heading.  Does this person have any idea what they are doing?

But, of course, learning to confront the analysis that breaks down communication was a major objective of the exercise.  To help us with this objective, the school organized an “intro to improv comedy” class for us.  

The parts of the improv session that were actually funny happened when we were able to tune into another person and respond generously and whimsically.  The point was to follow another’s lead without hyper-analysis.  Indeed, we were to replace analysis with cognitive empathy and lightheartedness.

As we consider the present (and future) of our church and world, it is worth it to realize that we make the road by walking.  Much of this road will be improvisation.  Let’s tune into each other and respond with generosity and lightheartedness. 

Honey Whole Wheat

My first job was in a bakery.  When it opened, my boss (the head baker) only baked and sold one type of bread, Honey Whole Wheat.  The franchise that he was part of mandated this constraint which, I think, lasted the whole first year.  The idea was that he should focus on the fundamentals of baking before expanding the business and branching out with more complex recipes.

What is the Honey Whole Wheat of the spiritual life?  That fundamental practice that is the foundation for everything else?  

It may be the capacity to sit, in silence, with our own interiority. To be present to our own thoughts and feelings and witnessing them clearly without layering on narrative. 

This is the place where love, where artful living can begin, and may, in fact, be the Honey Whole Wheat of being human.

Three Years

Katie Broussard and I are wrapping up the third full year at Corde Press, sharing stories of our Catholic tradition with depth and delight.  

I wanted to share with you the newsletter we sent out last week: Year in Review, and a Gift for You!  (The coupon code expires this Friday.)

Advent blessings, friends.  Thanks for being part of our journey.

Lead from Any Chair

I love the current pediatrician office that cares for our sons.  The doctors are fine, but what really is exemplary is the front desk staff.  They are attentive amid (occasional) chaos, curious even when fatigued, and actually solve a remarkable number of problems without bringing families into the office to see a doctor.  In an important way, the folks answering the phones are leading the practice.

I’ve heard that, while playing in an orchestra, one might “lead from any chair.”  That is, whether I am the conductor, violin soloist, second oboe, or the guy playing that huge drum, I am able, through my actions, to lead. 

What would the church be like if we realized any of us could lead from any chair?  This is, in part, what I think Pope Francis is asking us to consider during the current Synod on Synodality.  (Check out the questions 40% of the way down the page of the Synod Survey of our diocese.)

Clinging or Thanksgiving

We don’t actually see the things that we cling to. Not really. Our fear of losing these things blinds us from seeing and experiencing them in their fullness.

To truly give thanks for something (and to delight in it), then, let’s pray for the grace to be free from clinging, from fear.

Labels are Lazy

When we use a label to comprehend a person, we trade encounter for ease. That is, we substitute lazy thinking for actually approaching the reality of a person.

This is true (whether we admit it or not) even for the labels that we give ourselves a pass on.

It is true that, as we communicate, it is extremely difficult to avoid labels entirely. If and when we do use them, though, let’s be dissatisfied with them, and use this dissatisfaction to tip us toward curious encounter.

React or Respond (or Initiate and Weave)

When we react, we respond impulsively. We might experience a momentary catharsis, but also, in all likelihood, we make the situation worse.

We respond from our generosity. We perceptively consider what is needed and can shepherd a positive outcome.

With both reactions and responses, though, the process started with someone or something outside of ourselves. The alternative is to initiate.

This takes courage, to begin something new. With initiative, courage, and endurance, though, we can do the important things. We can weave people together to serve the common good.

Taking Charge of the Weight of Reality

This week (16 November) we recall the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.  One of the Jesuits, Ignacio Ellacuría, was a philosopher and theologian, and part of his legacy was to offer a three-fold approach to engage the times that one lives in.  It is:

(1) To realize the weight of reality (hacerse cargo)

(2) To shoulder the weight of reality (cargar con)

(3) To take charge of the weight of reality (encargarse de)  

Even the first takes major guts.  With all three, a disciple can transform reality, and be transformed by the courageous work.

Rearranging Our Prejudices

Psychologist William James once observed that “a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” The alternative to this, learning to see the world as it is, is difficult work.  But if we are to change our culture to serve the common good, it is the only place to start.

I Am an Ass!

Anthony de Mello, SJ once ostentatiously declared in a spoken retreat that he was going to write a book entitled, “I’m an ass and you’re an ass!”*

The point he was making was that it is profoundly liberating to experience one’s own capacity to be petty, selfish, mean, or worse.  This realization frees us from our moral superiority before others and opens a world of connection.

And how right he is!  Acknowledging oneself as no better than the person we judge frees us from nasty narratives that divide us.  

*The retreat has actually been turned into the audiobook of Awareness.

The Contagion of Contempt

When we consider someone with contempt, we say that they are beneath our consideration.  Engagement with them is not worth our time.  They receive only our disgust.

And contempt is contagious; as two people pass it back and forth, it grows exponentially.  This is even more true within an in-group, a cultural echo chamber, a tribe, until contempt kills any curiosity or engagement of the other.  These days, particularly in political discussions, contempt for “those people” is on the rise.

Contempt kills our ability to communicate and work for the common good, and so interrupting the contagion of contempt is an act of courage.  This courage begins by naming clearly what we fear and getting close enough to love.

Playing to Win

The first sports coach that I remember was a passionate, gruff-voiced, rail-thin, two-maybe-three-pack-a-day smoker named Gary. He coached us soccer and he was the best.

I often recall advice that he hollered at us one halftime.

“You guys are playing NOT TO LOSE. I want you to PLAY TO WIN!”

How often do we play to win? In our work? Our relationships? Our life in the church?

And how often do we play not to lose?

Telling Our Stories

One of the finest gifts that we can offer another is a generous, compassionate space into which they can tell their story.  

Perhaps such a space opens up between old friends, catching up after a time apart.  

Or maybe it is in the context of a silent retreat, where a director helps a retreatant to deeply perceive the presence of grace and use this perspective to tell again their life’s narrative.

Katie and I were given such a gift recently from the folks at the Notre Dame Alumni Association who run the digital ministries of FaithND when we recorded an episode on their Everyday Holiness podcast diving into our ongoing formation and the creation of Sorin Starts a School.  For this generosity, we are immensely grateful. 

How we tell our stories matters a great deal for how we live.  Let us offer to each other a loving space into which we can tell our stories.

I Can’t Know How!

When our 2.5 year old has difficulty with a task, he will exclaim, “I can’t know how!”

He, of course, means that he doesn’t know how, but I have found myself thinking about the comical phrase that he does use.

Too often, we operate implicitly out of the assumption that we can’t know how to do something.  (That challenge in front of me…  it is… impossible!)

Except, in almost every case, it isn’t impossible.  Yes, I might have to change how I dedicate my time.  And, yes, I may have to take some vulnerable risks and show up consistently with emotional endurance.  

If I do those things, I realize that I can, in fact, know how.

How Good Can This Be?

I can often fall into the following trap. Faced with a constraint, I try to overcome it with all of my power. The trickiness of the trap is that the constraint binds how I think about the situation. I focus only on it, and how to attenuate it. The constraint defines my vision.

One day some years ago, as I was caught in this trap, my dad posed a liberating question. He asked, “have you ever thought about how good this situation can be?”

Aha! I had been so focused on how to make a situation less bad, that I had forgotten that it could be good.

By focusing on the possibility, I was freed to think differently. That little question changed the story and, thereby, the situation. It helped me play to win rather than play not to lose.

If, like me, you are ever mired in a battle of wills with a constraint, I wonder if you’ll wonder how good the situation could be?

Cozy or Compelling

Steve Jobs died 10 years ago this month. To mark the anniversary, one of his closest collaborators, Jony Ive, reflected on his relationship with Jobs in the Wall Street Journal. Ive remarked that:

“I had thought that by now there would be reassuring comfort in the memory of my best friend and creative partner, and of his extraordinary vision.”

“But of course not. Ten years on, he manages to evade a simple place in my memory. My understanding of him refuses to remain cozy or still. It grows and evolves.”

This type of dynamic, compelling memory is a remarkable thing to consider.

Are we able to say the same about our memory of mentors who made us dream of significant lives? Or of our “favorite” saints? Wasn’t it Dorothy Day who said she hoped she would never be considered a saint because she did not want to be dismissed so quickly?

Let us pray for the grace of memories that compel us to lives of significant generosity.

Who Loves?

Let’s think about the Good Samaritan story for a second and see something cool.

The story starts with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and the young man’s follow-up question: Who is my neighbor?

And you know the middle.  Man is beaten, left for dead.  The “holy” people pass by.  The outsider acts mercifully on the beaten man’s behalf.

Good.  

Now notice the end.  Jesus asks: “Which one of these was neighbor to the [wounded man]?  Neighbor = Helper Samaritan.

But wait!  The commandment is to love the neighbor!  If we can trust the syntax of the translation, the one who is doing the loving, then, is the beaten man!

The point, for me, is this: Robust, expansive love can begin when we are able to bear our wounds, in vulnerability, to people we trust.  In this sense then, yes, the wounded man plays an important part in the relationship.

Shall we go and do likewise?

Straw Man or Steel Man

When we consider a person that, at this moment, we do not agree with, what is the story that we tell about them?

Does it resemble a “straw man?”  That is, do we pick only the flimsiest parts of their perspective and rail against it?

Or do we set up a “steel man?”  That is, do we consider their position with cognitive empathy and fill out their narrative as strongly as possible?

One strategy will help us productively and compassionately engage the world as it is.  The other will inflate our ego’s self-righteousness.

Effort and Effortlessness

An integrated interior life certainly requires an element of effort: to show up each day in silence, to carve out time in defiance of all of life’s distractions, to conquer the resistance of “Oh, I will just pray tomorrow.” 

But, truly, a bigger and trickier part is the commitment to effortlessness.  If the point is to tune to how deeply we are loved and to trust in this love, then a massive egoic effort will not help us.  We need effortlessness, a sense of abandon, as in love or sleep.

This effortless effort is certainly a paradox, but a fruitful one, worth engaging.

Seasons

This weekend, our family moves from Northern Mexico to Greater DC.  

I believe that, if we pay attention during life’s transitions, the seasons of our lives can reveal themselves with unique clarity.  That is, it is possible to harness the emotional intensity of a transition and, holding the moment gently, to gather the meaning of the past years.

I often need help to pay attention in this way, and one song in particular helps me achieve this disposition.  It was written and performed by former colleague, master teacher, and dear friend, Michael Crean.  It is from an album that forms the musical backbone of the audiobooks for Audacious Ignatius and Sorin Starts a School.

Here is the song, entitled “Seasons.”  (It is registered on SoundCloud under his pen name.)  For an optimal experience, listen with good headphones after everything the day requires has been done.

Here’s to attentiveness, whatever the season.

Halten

A German verb for “to hold” (halten) can be used as the verb “to think,” as in: What do you think about that idea?

This structure illustrates a healthy relationship with our mind’s activity.  I am holding a thought in awareness.  I do not over identify with it.  I can let it go.  I can share it.  I can do something about it. But I am not the thought.

So.  Was hälst du?  What do you think?  (That is, what do you hold?)

Fun and Serious, Deep and Delightful

Katie shipped out Sorin Starts a School last week, and then the fun began.  We started receiving texts and emails from you all about reading the book for the first time.  What a joy to connect, especially about something we have anticipated sharing for so long!

The brief message from the father of a friend stood out to us.  He wrote that the book struck him as both “fun and serious,” both “whimsical” and inclusive of “faith and determination.”

This weaving of depth and delight is precisely our aim, and hearing that the book makes good on this promise fills us with gratitude.  Thank you for believing in what Katie and I made.

If you are the sort of person who shares things on the interwebs, we’d love to have you as a partner in sharing the book.  Of particular value are: 1) leaving a review here (scroll down and click on the part that says “reviews”) and 2) emailing folks you know who would delight in the book.  

Let the (serious) fun continue!

Depth Is Not a Fixed Trait

Those hours we spend loving, praying, enduring, listening, serving, attending to another… those hours do work on us, carving out a deeper capacity for love.

Depth is not a fixed trait.

Our Defenses Affect Our Flourishing – Part I

Life presents us with conflict, stress, and change, so we develop (often unconscious) defensive habits to deal with this pain.

There is compelling evidence* suggesting that the maturity of our defenses can determine the extent to which we develop psychosocial health. 

Here are some mature defenses (articulated in the DSM-IV).

(1) Altruism – Taking action to decrease the world’s suffering

(2) Anticipation – Holding future pain in awareness (i.e. memento mori)

(3) Humor – Being able to laugh at oneself and the vicissitudes of life

(4) Sublimation – Engaging healthy, gratifying alternatives to an opportunity denied

(5) Suppression – Stoicism (i.e. “If you are going through hell, keep going.”) 

Development of these habits is not a matter of will power.  They are cultivated in the context of significant relationships, drawn out of us in empathy and safety.  


*For more, check out Chapter 8 (entitled “Resilience and Unconscious Coping”) of this fascinating book reflecting on the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Our Defenses Affect Our Flourishing – Part II

Here I wrote that the maturity of our unconscious defenses in the face of life’s pain contributes to our overall psychosocial wellness.

And the opposite seems true as well.  Immature defenses tend to undermine our wellness. 

Here are some common immature defenses.

Some (dissociation, fantasy, passive aggression, projection) avoid or externalize responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in.

Other defenses keep the threatening thought or feeling out of our awareness.  These include displacement (directing anger at something other than the source of the anger), intellectualization, and repression.

Awareness of these immature defenses can help us leave them behind.  To truly grow, though, we need to witness exemplars of the mature defenses as well as experience the relational support to integrate them.  

Showing One’s Face

My wife and I used to work here in downtown Cairo, Egypt.

My wife’s work was in the legal aid clinic.  She worked often with one translator, a young woman from Somalia, when preparing the cases of Somali clients.  This woman wore the niqab, so my wife had only ever seen her eyes.

Then, the day before we were to return to the US, this young woman approached my wife to say goodbye and told her that she wanted to find a place alone so that she could show my wife her face.     

There was no real privacy on the compound.  The workspace of the entire legal aid clinic was, generously estimated, about 14 feet by 24 feet, with an adjoining bathroom.  So my wife and this Somali woman went into the bathroom, saw each other face to face, and said goodbye.

Deciding to show our face to someone takes significant courage. 

How do we become people who have the desire to show our face to one another?  

How do we become someone of such love that people want to show their face to us?

The Speed of Self-Talk

Did you know that our self-talk can accelerate up to 4,000 words a minute.  

That is a lot of input. 

It is an invaluable skill, then, to be able to notice our inner chatter and to let it go when we do not need it to love and work in the world.

Power-tropism

Plants are phototropic.  Over time, they orient themselves according to the light source in their environment, bending either toward the light or away from it.

Many people are power-tropic.  They bend toward (or away from) those that they perceive are in power, and reflexively take on (or react against) their characteristics.

Seeing this phenomenon can help us understand our own motivation, the motivation of others, and, then, how to shape culture in a just way.

A Fresh Piece of Paper

Growing up, when we (one of my siblings or I) had convinced ourselves that a homework problem had stumped us, our father would do the following.

He would bring us to his desk, turn on the desk light, give us a blank sheet of paper, and sharpen our pencil.  He would talk out the problem with us if we wanted and then (this part was key) would leave.  He showed that he trusted us to solve our own problems.   

And, surprise!  We always figured it out.

I think often about that exercise, particularly when I feel momentarily stuck.  What a gift to be given the habit of trying again, at a different angle, with a fresh piece of paper.

Your Harshest Critic

Your harshest critic is, in all likelihood, you.

The first way out of this reality is to see it with clear eyes.

Difficult Conversations

One of the things that makes difficult conversations so difficult is that there are actually multiple conversations going on.  In a truly tough talk, there is probably:

1) The Feelings Conversation: Narrative spun out of the reality of how I am / we are feeling

2) The “What Happened” Conversation: Narrative establishing the facts the conflict

3) The Identity Conversation: Narrative and analysis about what this means for how I see myself / us.

If two people are stuck in different “conversations,” they can neither attend to each other nor communicate effectively. 

So, in a relationship where conflict is possible, it is an enormous help to have the ability to talk about and refer back to these three conceptual hooks before a conflict begins. (For more, check out the book on difficult conversations.)

The Analysis Tax

My mind can be running analysis on my situation (i.e. “This is good, bad, boring, fun, a waste, meaningful, etc.”)…

Or it can be spacious and present.

I’ve come to think of this analysis as a tax on my ability to interact with reality

This hyper-analysis is often involuntary, but noting it drains it of its power.

Giving up analysis (and so the tax) for a day or a week or longer has the potential to be a deeply freeing experiment.

Making a Point, Making a Connection, Making a Difference

Making a point is, in the short term, quite fun.  With a rhetorical flourish, we spin a narrative about how we see the world.  Sometimes, this involves putting someone in their place in a way that activates the defensiveness of their ego (and ours).  Little positive change can come from this.

Making a point is different from making a connection.

Making a connection is harder than making a point.  It begins with listening.  Truly, humbly listening.  And then, with prudence and patience, willing the good of another.

Put another way, in order to make a difference in the world, first we must make a connection with a person.  This path is far better (and more courageous) than simply making a point

Waiting for the Answer We Already Have

I’ve spent (that is, wasted) a lot of time in that situation.

Is it possible that you already have the answer you are waiting for as well?

If so, the next thing to do is to act.

Be Careful or Pay Attention

A month ago, our family spent a week on a ranch with a group of lifelong friends and their children.  As a group of our children scaled a rock wall together (and I became increasingly nervous), I asked another dad how he considers the physical risks that his children take.  He responded with the following.  

“My wife and I don’t really say ‘be careful’ to our kids because we don’t want them to be fearful, or necessarily careful, as they interact with the world.  Instead we say, ‘pay attention.’  We want them to pay attention to their surroundings and how they are feeling at any moment.  To be able to assess risk clearly and learn from any situation that they encounter.”

That sounded right to me, and honestly like advice that I should take.  

Now, as I remind my children to “pay attention” when they take risks, I am reminded in return of a profound hope for them and for myself.  I hope for our ability to attend to the world and the inner life with sensitivity and intuition, rather than with fear.

Control or Mastery

When our youngest son was about 9 months old (and would wake up very early in the morning), our family spent a few days of vacation just north of San Diego.  When our son would wake up, my wife and I took turns putting him in the carrier, leaving the condo, and walking on the pier built a quarter mile out into the Pacific Ocean.  

From the pier, even at 6:00am in mid-November, one could easily see a hundred surfers, tiny to our sight, bobbing up and down in the waves.  Each time a solid wave would approach them, a few surfers would stand up and take the wave, riding it masterfully to shore. 

I often wonder about the difference, in my own life, between mastery and control

From the pier, the surfers showed us that control of one’s circumstances is not possible, but mastery of those circumstances is beautiful.

More of What Does Not Satisfy

Addictions make us think we need more of what, in the end, does not satisfy.

Yes, the obvious addictions, but also the more subtle ones.

Avoidance of necessary or salutary conflict.

Destructive thought patterns.

Status.

Control.

Addictions are a trap, and seeing them with clear eyes is the first step toward freedom.

Fingerspitzengefühl

I am learning German, and so am developing a deep affection for the language’s compound nouns.  

Three words combine to make one of my favorites: Fingerspitzengefühl.

Finger is the noun for finger.  Spitzen is the verb for to sharpen.  Gefühl is a noun meaning sensation or feeling.

Literally, it means “the sensitivity in the tips of one’s fingers,” but is also understood more broadly as intuition or a sure instinct.  

So, let’s pray for the grace of Fingerspitzengefühl, in our interior lives, our relationships, and our work.  May our attentiveness and compassion be sharpened to be as sensitive as the tips of our fingers.

Action as the Antidote to Anxiety

If the narratives and noise in our heads spin, we can feel anxious and stuck.  What is the perfect way forward in this situation, we wonder?

Well, there is never a perfect way.  So, best to weigh the options one more time with a trusted conversation partner, and then act.

It may turn out that taking on an experiment or two is an excellent antidote to anxiety.

The Cultivation of Solitude

In our senior year of college, a group of friends began hosting “professor dinners” in which we crowded around a mediocre meal and asked a beloved teacher an impossibly difficult question.

In the final weeks before graduation, three professors were asked, “what is the greatest challenge of our generation?”

The first answered, “the ability and conviction to speak truthfully.”

The second answered, “solidarity with the poor.”

Then, the third answered that “the cultivation of solitude” was to be our greatest challenge.

Wait… the WHAT?

Largely an overzealous, justice-minded bunch, reactions ranged from sceptical acceptance to muffled horror. Didn’t this guy know about the urgency of the struggle for justice?

Of course he knew. But, he also knew that without solitude, we would not be centered within ourselves, be capable of sharing this center with others, or authentically build communities worthy of trust strong enough to bear the challenges of our age.

Neither Faith nor Works

In Scripture and Tradition, the conversation of “faith or works” is a well trod path.

Sometimes, though, it strikes me that a more present danger of our age is that we have neither faith nor works.

Certain ideological narratives can masquerade as faith, but have nothing to do with trust in a loving God.  And often this narrative only serves to whip up self-righteousness instead of actual work on behalf of real people. 

Let’s work and pray with each other instead.

Saving Frogs from the Pool

A friend once told me that, when he would visit his mother’s home, he found her preoccupied many times a day with searching her pool and screened porch for tiny trapped frogs. When she found one, she would catch it in a net and release it into the yard.

For her, the house was the extent of her sphere of influence. This assumption limited how she considered the possibility of her life and thus bound how she chose to spend her attention and energy.

Certainly, to engage the world productively, we have to judge what is actually in our control, and then make prudential decisions about how to engage the world. None of us is infinite.

Too often, though, we encounter too little, and spend time stressing out over frogs.

Far better to encounter actual suffering and address it actively and compassionately.

What Do You Have to Say for Yourself?

Years ago in Chicago, we had a friend who, on someone’s birthday, would put them on the spot and ask: “So, now that you are x years old, what do you have to say for yourself?”

I came to love the exercise, to watch others take account and share a bit of their distilled wisdom.

My birthday was this week, and my brother challenged me to answer the beloved question on the blog.  So, for 2021, here is my answer.

It has been of great value to me to discover my story, to understand who I am and how I tend to engage the world.

It has also been of great value to me to discover our stories, to understand the narratives of the tribes of which I find myself a part.

And it is of ultimate value to me to consistently lay both my story and our stories into the narrative of The Story, the mystery of a loving God.  This movement saves my story and our stories from becoming idols over which I obsess.  

Put another way, kenosis before The Story returns me to my story and our stories with power, clarity, and the freedom to love, tuned to what is of ultimate value.

Toddlers as an Antidote to Self-Sufficiency Before God

Trying to keep a toddler relatively chill during an hour-long liturgy can be a uniquely punishing experience.

The little human often grasps neither the rhythm of the mass nor the utility of whispering when communicating. He is quite heavy, a thirty pound bag of rice that wants to move, point, be held a little higher, and be balanced in odd ways on my body. The setting is quiet and public, and so visibility (and potential for embarrassment) is high.

All of these details sum to a basic and physical reminder, during the mass, that I am in need and not in control.

For a long time, I regarded this strain with varied levels of resentment. Now, I try to see it as an asset to prayer.

I try to recall, during this strain, that the worst disposition I can carry into the liturgy is one of self sufficiency… that I am basically okay on my own and do not depend, each day, on the grace of God.

The presence of a toddler, then, is a very physical antidote to this lie of self-sufficiency. The strain can actually crack me open to experience the grace of the mass and of my life.

If we let them, toddlers can act as an antidote to our self-sufficiency before God.

The Known or The Unknown

Which is consistently the origin of the abundance and joy in our lives? The known or the unknown?

Right.

And why, then, do we seek so often to control our circumstances?

Let us try, each day, to venture into the unknown.

Forgiving Reality

A friend recently shared with me the following story.

He was, some months ago, on a road trip with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.  

(Moment of delightful appreciation for what it must be like to make a road trip with the good Friar.)

In a glorious non-sequitur, Fr. Rohr shared one definition of sanctity.  He said: “You know, a saint is someone who has forgiven reality.”

Since hearing this definition, I’ve thought about what this might mean… to “forgive reality.”  

Surely, understanding this definition could take a lifetime, but for me, now, “forgiving reality” means relinquishing my emotional reactivity (anger, judgment, pride, etc) as I confront any reality that appears, in this moment, imperfect or threatening.  (It is my hunch, also, that I am able to do this to the extent that I experience forgiveness myself and trust in the loving kindness of God.)

As I am able to forgive reality, I am able to see more clearly, live more artfully, and respond to reality with love.

Ways to Limit Our Intelligence

If we want to limit our intelligence, the following list is a good place to start:

1) Love being right.

2) Be addicted to the moral high ground

3) Restrict your sources of knowledge.

4) Relate only with people who are like you.

5) Relate only with people who agree with you.

Let’s acknowledge that intelligence can be a communal virtue, and work diligently to cultivate it.

Rest and Haircuts

I love getting a haircut, and I think it is mainly because, for those fifteen minutes, it is my job to do nothing. There is zero pressure to accomplish anything. There is no real way to use my smartphone. I can just breathe and enjoy the experience.

And, really, releasing my mind from all tasks for a chunk of time may be the best thing I do all day for my imagination, and so my productivity.

Put another way: Imagination without rest is not possible, and skill without imagination is barren.

Saaka and Dandora

The novitiate for the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa is located at Lake Saaka, a crater lake hidden by the rolling hills of rural Western Uganda.  It is impossibly temperate and beautiful.  Here, the men in formation will work, pray, and study for a year before taking first vows.

And, for many years, their next stop in formation was Dandora, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya.  In Dandora, one hundred thousand people struggle to survive on four bleak square kilometers that border Nairobi’s largest dump.  Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the air smells either strongly or faintly of burning garbage.  Save for the sunrise and sunset, there is no natural beauty.  Here, the religious who took vows at Lake Saaka, would continue their formation with pastoral work and theology studies.  

Both Saaka and Dandora are places of sincere intensity.  At Saaka, it is the intensity of witnessing the growth of one’s own inner life in a wildly abundant experience of God’s creation. In Dandora, it is the intensity of witnessing the visceral resilience, strength, and prayer of God’s people.

I have thought about these extremes for some time.  They certainly defy clean interpretation.  What remains clear to me, though, is that I have known religious of the Holy Cross who, because they have lived in both intensities, carry a profound capacity to witness to the unrelenting and merciful love of God.

Kennen Lernen

In German, the way to say “to meet” (as in, “good to meet you”) is actually a composite of two verbs: kennen lernenKennen means “to know” and lernen means “to learn.”

Fascinating, right?  Truly meeting someone does, in fact, demand attentive receptivity so that we can learn how to know the person.

I do not know if this interpretation is implied by its etymology, but it is still a worthy reminder.

We have the opportunity to learn to know those around us every day, even those that we met, for the first time, long ago.

Enough

Managing a family’s financial future is a lifelong balance with a great many variables.

One central variable, that affects many others, is the variable of “enough.” At any given point in our lives, can I say if we have “enough?” Enough money. Enough living space. Enough stuff.

It is tricky to solve for “enough,” but it is worth the mental energy because when our answer for “enough” becomes clearer, so does our capacity to be generous.

Memento Senectus

Memento mori, latin for “remember your death,” is a powerful spiritual practice.  When we recall that we are finite, we are freed to live with singular purpose and focus on the most important things.

Relatedly, I wonder what happens when we consider memento senectus, “remember your old age?”

God willing, we will reach old age and, during that time, our bodies and minds will probably work less well and the context of our days will have changed considerably.  

When we consider this reality, what effect does it have on how we want to live today?

What Confers Status?

Here is a question that gets right to the heart of a community’s culture: Within this community, what confers status?  

Put another way: You see those people at the top of the heap?  Why do we have a collective understanding that those people are at the top?  

I’ve been part of communities that have conferred status based on the following:

-Seniority

-Generosity and consistency

-Conspicuous performance of ideological purity

-Looking like other people regarded as high status

-Level of contribution

-Articulate confidence

-Athleticism

-Professional excellence

Getting clear on what confers status in a community helps us understand how it runs.  That is a huge step toward understanding the culture and, therefore, gaining perspective on how you can help it to grow.

Sonder

Have you heard of the word sonder, meaning the experience of realizing that all other people have an interior life as rich and complex as one’s own?

Fascinatingly, it was coined in the past ten years, in an effort to name emotional experiences that currently lack a proper word in English.

Both the experience of sonder, as well as the effort to name complex emotions that lack easy articulation, functions to build our capacity for humility and insight, resulting in more compassionate communities.

Error Messages, Considered Curiously

When programming a web application, error messages constantly appear in the browser where the project is being built, displaying text describing that something is going wrong. (A file is missing. A typo broke part of the program. A module is missing. The server is misconfigured.)

Some error messages are clear. Some are difficult to decipher.

These messages are a constant part of the building experience, and so the programmer must make a constant choice. She can see the error as a chance to learn, to improve the project, to hone her skill. Or, she can let herself hate the error message and bear down in frustration each time a message appears.

One approach will lead to growth and the other will lead to painful frustration.

We encounter error messages, in life, all the time. Those things don’t go quite right based on our narratives about the world, in professional, personal, political, or social spheres.

Let us try to welcome these messages with a compassionate curiosity and generous engagement, and, when we fail, resolve to become curious about what keeps us from being able to do so.

One-Browser-Tab Time

When working on my computer, I am often guilty of having a comical number of browser tabs open at one time. Each tab represents a reminder to do something or an open loop I need to close. And the sheer number of tabs that are open keeps me from attending to any one task well.

The most important things (our most cherished relationships, time spent in prayer, dedicated generosity) deserve our single-minded attentiveness, as if it were the only browser tab open in our minds. Protecting this focused time is both tough and worth it.

Work in Progress

Near the major intersection southeast of our home, there is a small sign that reads, “obra en proceso.”  Work in progress.

The sign is quite understated given the scope of the project.  One day, we found the entire intersection had been shut down and traffic patterns rerouted.  The traffic lights were gone, and an enormous hole had been dug.  For months, workers have built a major infrastructure project that will clear congestion near the US-Mexico border.  The project will take between a year or two to complete.

In the context of our interior lives, it takes courage to undergo major change, either personally or professionally.  It is far easier to live in the untruth that we are self-sufficient, but doing so is like relying on old infrastructure.  

Blessed are those who have the guts to declare themselves a work in progress.  They will defy the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset.