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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.