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Cathedrals Under Construction

Some years ago, my wife and I spent the day in the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia, pictured below. The original architect, Antoni Gaudí, hoped the basilica to be “the Bible, made of stone.” Of its uniqueness, one art critic said that “it is probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art.” These superlative statements are entirely deserved.  Its beauty and layers of meaning were exhausting to take in.  And what about the crane and scaffolding in the picture? Well, they are still completing construction of the building that was consecrated as…

When “Both” Means “Neither”

When I was in elementary school, two of my very favorite events were scheduled for the same Saturday: A Cub Scout campout and a YMCA basketball team end-of-year party at Pizza Hut. “Camping or Pizza Hut” is a tough choice indeed. As my father is generous and fun-loving, he asked if I wanted to try to do both.  Of course I did! Hooray! So, on the fateful Saturday, we drove to the camp in the morning, set up the tent, hung out through the early afternoon, and then drove 90 minutes back into town for the party.  After I had…

Living Here

Since 2006, I have had twelve different homes in six different countries.  I (and now we) move a lot. Toward the end of our time at each place (when I give myself the space to be quiet) an unbidden sense surfaces: It is wonderful that I have had the chance to live here. Certainly, leaving a place and then adjusting to a new one is not easy.  It involves a great deal of loss.  I sense, though, that it is all preparation, for when I have no more days, to be able to say with serenity: It is wonderful that…

Story Selection

When I was staying home with our infant son, he and I spent the Chicago winter by listening to a lot of audiobooks. Among them was Walter Issacson’s biography on Steve Jobs.  The audiobook clocks in at just over 25 hours. That is about three workdays of audio. That is to say, almost everything of his life is left out.  Even under this constraint, Isaacson weaves a masterful, productive whole. We make choices, too, about which stories of our lives to rehearse to ourselves and to present to others.  This choice matters a great deal for who we become.  Our…

Bluey

Rare is media that can entrance and teach both adults and children.  For books, the master is Mo Willems. For television, a show called Bluey sets the curve. I do not remember who turned us onto the program, but our family owes them big. Though ostensibly for children, I am certain that this show, in its 7-minute episodes, makes me a better human being. I fear to over explain it.  It is best to just to experience the genius. So, go beg someone’s Disney+ password and treat yourself tonight.  Especially brilliant episodes are: “Omelette”, “Dance Mode”, and “Hammerbarn”.  The people…

Serious Business

Finding and protecting time for meditation, prayer, and the cultivation of solitude is serious business. It is quite likely the best way* to begin to take ourselves and our stories less seriously. *okay – maybe it is tied with raising children.

The Other Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the daily emails I read went from two to three (when I signed up for The Daily Difference, a source of reliable and easily understandable knowledge on climate change.) A few people asked me about the other two.  Here they are! The Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation: Most of the meditations are adapted from the writings of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.  They translate the depth and challenge of the Christian tradition in a way that is consistently inviting. Seth Godin’s daily blog: Godin riffs on marketing, empathy, being…

75%

Our sons wanted to practice some German songs that they were learning at school, so I found them on YouTube, set the playback speed at one click under full-speed (75%), and we all sang along. It was (and is) great fun. One time, though, when queueing up the songs, I forgot to set the speed at 75%, and the songs began at full speed.  Both of them immediately protested.  Whoa! Why is everything going so fast! Turn it back to how it was! “Normal,” it turns out, is way too accelerated. And in our lives, too, it may be that…

This, Too, Shall Pass

The strain of caring for a young person through a trying stage. A disorienting heartache. The pain of having let someone down. This, too, shall pass. And yet, do I truly want to wish it quickly away? If I do, I very well may miss the meaning of the experience. I may short-circuit the work it wants to achieve in me. So, yes… this, too, shall pass… but before it does, I promise to be present with it.

And No One Was Thinking About Being a Monster

I hope that you, some day, run into The Monsters’ Monster, a witty, subtle tale about the power of gratitude. Let’s all, like the Monster, say “dank you” a bit more. ps – Happy Thanksgiving, all. pps- And Katie and I are grateful to Fr. James Martin for this post about The Examen Book.  Thank you, Jim!

As Broken and as Whole

I read (and then re-read and re-read) the following this week. “The neurosis of our age is the fear of being all that we are. And in the fear of being all that we are, we pretend that we are less than we are. And in pretending that we are less than we are, we are anxious. And we are anxious because we are afraid that someone might pull the curtain back and we might be discovered and we might have to stand up and be what we are. We might have to stand up and in an open-faced, vulnerable…

People Like Us Do Things Like This

The other day, I saw a car and a bike heading toward each other on the same narrow-ish street. Then I saw the car slow down, pull over, and actually put two tires up on the curb to give the bike more space. I see similar deference to bikes here routinely. It’s “how things are done around here.” Sometimes, we are so immersed in the culture of a place or institution that we do not even name or acknowledge the reality of “how things are done.” But when we slow down and observe (and/or listen to people who are not…

Presentation Two

The shelves of our sons’ Montessori classroom are lined with work activities. Many of these activities have multiple “presentations,” ways to engage the work at a deeper and deeper level. (They once reported that one work had eight presentations.) They feel energized and fascinated by the unfolding complexity and richness of the work. The child would likely not know how to access this depth of experience if there is not a guide to accompany them and a community of practice with which to engage. I think the church, at its best, is characterized by this kind of interaction, that we…

The Tree Stand

I’ve been hiking these days in the forests and farmland around Munich. At the edge of many patches of forest sits a a wooden treestand, like this. It is made for hunting. Climb the latter with your gear and wait, silently, for whatever might wander by.   This is what meditation is like, I think, except the point is that there is neither weapon nor aggression. Only two tools are needed: (1) the willingness to behold whatever comes and to let it move along, and (2) the dedication to climb into the treestand day after day. And there are many treestands…

Absorb Every Feeling? Integrate Every Thought?

Probably not the best idea. Here is a quote I think about a great deal that gives a hypothesis about why: “…[T]he mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict, like a small rider sitting on top of a large elephant. The rider represents conscious or controlled processes, the language-based thinking that fills our conscious minds and that we can control to some degree.  The elephant represents everything else that goes on in our minds, the vast majority of which is outside of our conscious awareness. These processes can be called intuitive, unconscious, or automatic, referring to the fact that…

The Utility of Feeling Dumb

We recently moved to Germany and, upon moving, I found myself to be incompetent at basic tasks. Examples. I made several mistakes in the disposal of our garbage. (The system is fairly intense here!) I did not know how to go about finding a doctor. I am not sure what many of the street signs mean. I can struggle to find basic things at the grocery store. I still miss the subtlety in most communication. All of this habituates me to the experience of feeling, well, kind of dumb! I can welcome it, though, as an opportunity rather than react…

Non-Maximization

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching get repeated quite a bit. Human dignity, common good, solidarity, etc. The list usually has seven. A colleague shared a similar list with me the other day that had eight, and the eighth has had me thinking. It was the principle of non-maximization, asking us to intentionally leave time unscheduled, land untilled, opportunities on the table.  Pause for a second to consider how wild (and difficult!) that is for us. I recently read that St. Francis of Assisi organized that part of their community land was to be left uncultivated so that all could…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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.…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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.…

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…

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…

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.…

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…

I Wonder, What If, Let’s Try!

A few weeks ago, I saw Elmo (and friends) sing a song called, “I Wonder, What If, Let’s Try!” I find this concise strategy (as well as the levity of dancing furry monsters) to be a most helpful way to reframe a problem I may be gripping too tightly.

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.

See, Judge, _____?

The See, Judge, Act method developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn and employed by the Latin American Bishops roots in Thomas Aquinas’ description of the virtue of prudence. But so often, today, we stop at the first two steps.  We see and we judge.  We comment instead of contribute and create. Action requires risk, and so vulnerability.   Let’s pray for the courage to see, judge, and act.

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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,…

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…

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…

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…

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…

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.

No One Has a Corner on Religious Experience

But sometimes we act like it.   It’s those people that are “good at praying,” we tell ourselves.  We can just leave religious experience to them. This assumption has the tricky disadvantage of being untrue. The mysterium tremendum is available to all. (For a glorious reminder of this, reread chapter 1 of The Religious Potential of the Child.)

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…