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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.)

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.