Two Addicts Try to Talk

“Stop that, Richard! Just stop it!”

Caught completely off guard, I stammered, “What? Stop what?”  Bob had just offered to give me jar of homemade plum preserves.

“When someone offers you something don’t hem-haw around. Don’t play this false humility crap, ‘Oh, I couldn’t…’ or insult me with ‘You shouldn’t…’  When I offer you something, say yes or no. Say, ‘No thank you.’ or ‘Thank you very much.’ Cut the bullsh*t, Richard! Say what you mean for god-sake.”

We had been driving down Lake Street and Bob got us talking about food by recalling what a perfect blueberry pie he’d had the night before — “all blueberries, none of this gelatin sh*t.” We retrieved some mutual ground by agreeing that we shared a special passion for raspberry pie as well as plum preserves.

No sooner had we fed the parking meter and entered Global Market when Bob was back at me.  Bright booths representing crafts from Tibet, Chile, Central America, Scandinavia as well as all sorts of locally produced organic meats, cheeses and fresh fruits and vegetables populated the Market.  An overdose of vibrant colors and distinctive  aromas danced all around.

We shared our delight and personal preferences.  I expressed disappointment that some of the shops were shuttered.

“D*mn it, Richard. Don’t do that!”

“What? Don’t do what?” I blurted defensively.

“Stop looking at the negative! That’s not going to do you any good. Stop commenting about the shops that are closed. Look at all that’s going on, not at what isn’t!  Look at the great stuff inside even if the shops are closed.”

One thing we did not see at Global Market was a good piece of raspberry pie. Here was my opportunity to reclaim some semblance of balance and equanimity after Bob’s piercing — though fair — admonitions!

“I know just the place — Turtle Bread!   We just had raspberry pie there last Sunday. Terrific… the best!” Off we went with nearly two hours left on our prepaid parking meter.

We hadn’t even placed our order when I know I’d scored big time. “Love this place, so much better than the bland, uniform, generically orchestrated Stabucks or Caribou. This place has life, character, personality, distinction.” I relished Bob’s approval.

He continued, “Look around, this is the world! I don’t even feel sorry for those two guys in their white shirts and ties — at least they have the good sense to come to a place like this!”

Though I’ve known Bob for a while now, each time we are together reveals something beguiling and compelling.

I knew about his 70-plus years of struggle with drug addiction. Today’s revelation was his five years in federal prison associated with his drug use.  The transparency of his sharing knocked me off-balance once again.  Of course, I blurted out something totally inept.

“Wow, I’ve never been in prison. So, what was that like?” This time Bob entertained my stupidity and awkwardness but seemed to shift to a wholly different psychic space.

“You learn to mind your own business! You keep your mouth shut. You see trouble, you turn and walk the other direction.”

Ouch! Now, I felt tables turned. Just as he had admonished me about expressing gratitude with a clear yes of no, or had chastened me to celebrate the manifest beauty all around, I wanted to blurt out, “Bob, don’t do that! Stop that!”

I restrained my urge to tell him that is no way to live. This will wait for another time.  However, I returned with a whole new insight into why Bob would be so appreciative of all the Global Market symbolized and for the depth of human connection he savored at Turtle Bread.

We began as two men entering conversation best as we are able. Two men, though with very different addictions, backgrounds, spiritualities and perspectives made an effort to talk — community happens, understanding deepens, appreciation expands.

We discover we are vastly more alike than we had ever presumed or allowed ourselves to imagine.  Still, we each have much to learn that only someone other than ourselves can teach.

Hurry-Up and Slow-Down

“McDonalds ruined us!” No, this isn’t a comment from a Wait Watchers meeting or a cardiac rehab training. It was made by a friend lamenting how we have become people who want what we want, the way we want it, when we want it… now!

Others have certainly copied what McDonalds pioneered. Fast-food has clearly become a more apt symbol of our impatient consumer culture than holiday dinner at Grandma’s house.

Patience — or my lack thereof — recurred throughout the past weekend. Planting a 10′ Heritage Oak tree yesterday I grieved that I would not live long enough to see this tree in its maturity. Why do some things have to take so long?

Yet, I tried to envision those yet unknown who would someday relax under the shade of a mighty oak. I mustered some satisfaction that tree planting is a blessing we can confer on generations yet unborn. Still, I want the tree to hurry-up and grow!

Patience also surfaced as an important theme at a reunion on Saturday. I had been privileged to assist with a retreat in April for eight men who were in various stages of recovery and had experienced homelessness as part of their experience with addiction. No one, absolutely no one, understands the demands of patience like these men.

Those who struggle with chronic relapse — and isn’t that all of us honest enough to admit we are not perfect — know in our bones how desperately difficult being patient can be.  If we cannot dispense with them quickly, our well engrained cultural habit is just to ignore our faults or deny we have a problem.  More honest than most of us, these men wrestle with excruciating demands of patience every day.

Coincidentally — providentially? — one of the other reunion planners had selected the following by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for our opening meditation. Don’t be put off by the length, its worth the read:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

One of the men on retreat said it better and much more simply. Noting what technology has popularized far beyond what McDonalds pioneered, he said in only 15 words what the renown Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin needed 164 words to say:

We’re the microwave generation. But we all know food tastes much better from the slow cooker!

Despite our dependence on fast-food and the latest kitchen technology, I am consoled to believe that most of us would still prefer Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house.  Now, there’s hope for recovery!

You Decide… You Really Do!

YOU be the judge. I could too easily come across as cynical. Who wants to put up with my cynicism?

Here are two news stories that greeted me this morning. They came totally independent of one another. Yet, they collided big time in my morning waking to consciousness.  I’d be curious to know if you see any connection and whether you see any reason for concern.

The first story came from my hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Hearld. Though I moved from Omaha in 1978, it will always be home and I enjoy staying connected with what’s going on there. Today the paper reports that the buy-out for fired University of Nebraska football coach, Bo Pelini will be $128,009 for the next 46 months.

I guess the sum seems smaller if reported in monthly increments rather than a lump sum ($5,888,414.00). The positive spin on the story is that this is less than it might have been — I guess that’s good news!

Because Pelini got a job coaching at Youngstown State in Ohio, Nebraska will “save” $21,991 each month on what the Huskers would have had to pay if he’d not landed another coaching job. Whew! Saving nearly $22,000 each month is a really good thing, right?

Yes, Coach Bo got fired last year even though he again led the Cornhuskers to a 9 and 3 season! If my memory is correct, the team won at least nine games in each of the seven seasons that Pelini coached the team.

Nebraskans take their college football serious! Nine wins for a team in the Big Ten Conference which can boast of the #1 national championship team just wasn’t good enough! Sadly, Nebraska fans are neither unique nor exceptional!

Then comes a seemingly unrelated story, not from the World-Herald but from completely different source. New statistics from the Pew Research Center show that between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped by nearly eight percentage points, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Yes, an 8% drop in seven years!

At the same time, Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study [link] found the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated — either atheist, agnostic or simply “nothing in particular” — has grown by more than six percentage points, from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. Yes, fast approaching one-fourth of the population.

You be the judge! Do you see any connection between these two stories? I don’t mean to suggest that football causes one to loose one’s faith — though on football Saturdays in Lincoln you might very well get that idea! I remain curious, however, whether these two seemingly unrelated reports might be pointing at the same social phenomenon! Are they two sides of the same coin?

Again, no one wants to read a cynical rant! So, I leave the ball in your court (mixing my metaphors!) with a final observation. We are currently building a new football stadium in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Vikings at a cost of more than $1,000,000,000.00 — yes, more than a billion dollars!

It’s hyped as a catalyst for economic development. In fact, a new urban park in the heart of the city — dubbed The Yard — will provide a grand approach and view of the imposing architectural monument. The park is being praised for providing a terrific venue for the many pre- and post-game rituals associated with NFL football.

Time was when Cathedrals were built on the town square! Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral — my family’s church and where I went to grade school — sits atop the highest geographical ridge in the city and is visible from as far as thirty miles away. The Cathedral of St. Paul is similarly perched above the Minnesota State capitol.

You judge! What are our core values? What’s important to Americans? Honestly speaking, where do we choose to worship on weekends? Who is our god?

 

Guilty as Charged

“Has anyone called you arrogant?” My brother and I were driving south on I-35 south between Minneapolis and the Iowa border when he shot that zinger at me. From anyone else I’d probably be incensed. Coming from him, I’ve had to admit that arrogance is a deeply ingrained trait, especially in the male lineage of my family.

Now we laugh about our shared propensity to such exaggerated self-regard. We still goad one another with the arrogance charge as brothers are wont to do. It’s become sort of a stand-in for expressing our affection — if you haven’t noticed, men are good at code language! It’s guaranteed to make us laugh. As with all good humor, we know that our fraternal jousting is grounded in a good deal of truth.

This all comes rushing back because I just spent eight terrific days with my brother in Florida. Incriminating evidence in something I read yesterday also brought it back with a vengeance. Though I’m no thunder-thinker, I have had the good fortune of a pretty good education, especially in matters theological. Yesterday I was brought face-to-face with my arrogance by being reminded of my gross ignorance.

Inter-religious dialogue — especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians — is a special interest for me. I gravitate to articles on the topic and participate more than most in inter-faith discussions and shared prayer events. While quick to admit my ignorance about Islam, I have blindly presumed I knew something about Judaism.

After all, I have Jewish neighbors and friends. I’ve attended numerous Seders over the years and have been moved by the spiritual richness of Jewish weddings and funerals. I studied the Hebrew scriptures in graduate school. But here is the most dangerous of my assertions — Jesus was Jewish and I know a whole lot about Jesus!

Yesterday I was casually reading, as I am wont to do, an esoteric journal by a Dutch Benedictine monk (that should be indictment enough, right?). Then, here came this zinger: “For many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha in the year 30 or 33. They know absolutely nothing of the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.” My ignorance exposed, I stand guilty as charged!

God, like a special big brother, knows how to not-so-subtly lay bare my faults. So it was with even greater intentional ribbing that God seemed to place this bit of wisdom from a 3rd century Desert Father before me this morning:

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Ouch!!! In my arrogance lies my greatest ignorance. Like my brother’s taunt, God followed with a not-so-subtle poke in the ribs. Do I use my intelligence as a weapon to defend my superiority as well as insulate my pious “convictions”? I shudder to see how easily I presume to be the repository of all truth, especially around matters spiritual.

Yes, I confess my need to be recognized for having “a way with words.” Perhaps the world might be better off if I shut-up more and learned to listen better.

I am also coming to question whether my “male lineage” is the primary source of my fault.  Arrogance seems to be a deeply engrained trait within the whole human family.

We need to get over it.

___________________

The esoteric journal cited is: Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter by Benoit Standaert, translated by William Skudlarek. Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2003., p 15.

The quote of Abba Arserius is from: Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), p 6. and was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation for May 8, 2015 sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation. PO Box 12464. Albuquerque, NM 87195.

Being Taken

He approached us in the parking lot, a lanky man with short-cropped brown hair perhaps in his upper twenties. His generic tee-shirt and jeans contrasted with the strained expression on his face. Anticipating a familiar story, my brother tried to wave me off from his vantage ten feet ahead.

The young man began apologetically according to script. He had recently moved to this town in central Florida from up-north with his family. “Do you know where I can get some help? I have a job,” he protested! On script, he recounted all the people and places he’d been looking for assistance. Inclusion of the police station on his list slapped against my deeply engrained cynicism.

“I get paid on Wednesday. Please… I need food for my family.” Skepticism converged with my deep seeded need to confront the laggard. Recognizing my position of power and privilege, I indulged my need to test the man by getting him to prove to me his need. “What are the names and ages of your kids?” I asked, intending to catch him in my snare. He responded without flinching, so promptly it could not have been rehearsed.  Plausible, I had to admit.  Now it was me off-stride!

Reaching for my wallet and looking him in the eye, “I believe you!” My response was not so much cognitive or deliberative. It came less from a meeting the minds and more from the meeting of our eyes, man-to-man. What began as a random incident in a parking lot – one that could be easily dismissed – ended in human encounter.

Was I taken as a chump by this skillful panhandler? Whether I was or not misses the point 24-hours later. I remember the man, if not the precise ages and names of his children. Only today do I realize that Wednesday is the last day of the month and could well be the day he receives a paycheck. It doesn’t really matter!

The unanticipated gift this young Dad gave me – someone old enough to be his grandfather – far surpasses the monetary value of what I gave him. There was more than “need” in what he expressed. There was vulnerability that I’ve learned to disguise or rarely risk. He revealed a degree of passion in his appeal too many of us have lost. How many of us are driven by our own heart’s yearning manifest in the account of this struggling parent?

For this – if only for this reminder – I stand in this young man’s debt. Too easily I slip into a smug, unexamined gratitude for having it so much better. But, do I? Really? Is such a question even relevant once we overcome cynicism, skepticism, and fear?

Dare we risk looking at one another eye-to-eye?  Dare we not?

FRED

Jeb the Dog joined twelve men on retreat this weekend. Because it was held at Dunrovin Retreat Center on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river, Jeb thought he’d gone to heaven.  The rest of us looked at ways we create hell here below with an eye to our way out.

This was all part of the Ignatian Spirituality Project that offers retreats to those who have experienced homelessness at some point and are “in recovery” from some type of addition. As all who work a Twelve-Step program know, it makes no difference whether you are there as part of the staff or a participant.  We are all in this together, all of us recovering from one thing or another, all seeking a more authentic way of being human.

One simple acronym — FRED — got to the core of what our time together was all about.  It stands for Fear, Resentment, Ego and Dishonesty. Pay attention to FRED and we will be well on our way to a spirituality of “some earthly good”.

FEAR — What “secret” festers in the recesses of our awareness such that its exposure would destroy us (or at least we are paralyzed by the prospect that it would)? Find a safe place to tell your story out loud to at least one other caring person.

RESENTMENT — People fail us, betray us, deeply hurt us. As one of the men said this weekend, “My resentment toward [——-] has had me by the balls for 50 years!” Let go of it! This may take time, bit by bit. Let it go — don’t give anyone this kind of emotional power over your life.

EGO — Many of us wear masks and try to project a picture-perfect image to the world. Take it from me, this is exhausting! We balk at being called “selfish” all the while our unbridled “control-center” bullies us and everyone within its reach. Try being honest, vulnerable, transparent, “real” — we find ourselves in good company (perhaps for the first time, our own!).

DISHONESTY — We may call them half-truths or “white lies” but we all tell them. We repeat stories so often they take on a reality of their own. We rationalize our behavior until it becomes acceptable, at least to ourselves.  Denial and deception hang out in the same neighborhood with dishonesty!  Yes, privacy and discretion have their place — not everyone deserves the whole truth, except ourselves. No one deserves a half-truth, most of all ourselves. Get real!

We don’t need to have experienced homelessness, at least in a literal sense, to recognize our need to get to know FRED better.  We don’t need to have gone through treatment for drug or alcohol addiction but it helps!

Being in recovery is not just about abstinence from drugs or alcohol.  It’s an honest admission that fear, resentment, ego and dishonesty too often have us by the balls.  Folks in recovery are just honest enough to admit this universal truth and are willing to work on it.

Rarely am I among more grateful, genuine and unpretentious men as I was this weekend. We would all be blessed to be more like them.

One Who Mentored Christ

Back in more pious, naively idealistic days I chose Joseph as my vow name when professing perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit. Vow names are somewhat like the name change given to nuns.  But in their case, women were often told what their new name would be. That explains how my first grade teacher went from Mary Ann to Sister Juana.

As an ideal, the new name expresses an intention, at least the hope , that we more fully live out our Baptismal call to become “a new creation in Christ.” (Let’s leave the “bride of Christ” imagery out of this — it always did seem a little weird to me!) My choice of Joseph was a pious act of devotion, not a public announcement or ontological shift! Only my parents would likely be confused when hearing me declare, “I, Richard Joseph…” Having named me Richard Clarence I alerted them ahead of time to what was coming.

I allowed my mother to indulge her pleasant presumption that my choice was in honor of her dad, Joseph Wieseler. It wasn’t. Rather, my choice was inspired by Joseph, husband of Mary. Taking my lead from his “annunciation” in Matthew’s Gospel, I had found consolation in what I thought the angel was saying to him — “Joseph, do not be afraid to espouse all that is incomplete, unknown, unfinished by taking Mary as your wife. It will be precisely in this embrace of her that Christ will be born.”

My naive assumption that virginity was primarily associated with “incompleteness” or being “unknown”, “unfinished” was to be turned on its head! Kathleen Norris has written a marvelous reflection entitled Virgin Martyrs in her masterful book, The Cloister Walk.  Norris observes that first and second century women like Agatha, Perpetua, Felicity, Cecilia, Lucy… those we know as virgin martyrs were anything but incomplete, unfinished or unknown. Quite the opposite!

The brilliance of these women was precisely in their recognition that in their “virginity” they possessed an inherent completeness, wholeness and dignity as a human person.  And all this was theirs separate from any need or dependence upon a man to confer their dignity!

These women recognized that in themselves they held the capacity to manifest the fullness of Christ!  Perhaps this is the most radical and theologically necessary defense for Christians tenaciously holding on to the perpetual virginity of Mary!   On this truth virgin women have staked their lives. In this we recognize the true identity of the virgin martyrs.

Something else about Joseph has been turned on its head since I first professed my association with him — unlike Mary’s one Annunciation, Joseph needs three! Yes, the angel appears to Joseph three times. It is the second that carries the most significance for me now — the one where the angel tells him others are trying to kill the child and they are to flee into exile. They are to become [illegal?] aliens, refugees in an unfriendly land.

Now, having been bruised and bumped around a bit by life, I claim knowledge and hold affinity with Joseph differently. Life may have appeared incomplete, unfinished and unknown decades ago. But it has not evolved at all as I had expected or even could have imagined. Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, certainly those of us in the seventh decade of our lives?

As life unfolds, we certainly know unmerited joy, unimagined happiness and the sheer gratuity of life! We also experience our portion of being Egyptian exiles, too often aliens in an unfriendly world. We learn that life is not fair, bearing far too much heartache for too many others if not for ourselves. By now, some of us have feared for our lives and the lives of those we love. No, life is rarely what we had imagined it would be — for better or for worse!

Today, March 19, is the Feast of St. Joseph. Today I claim his name anew in the hope I may somehow take on more of his identity, character and courage. Older, wiser and — I pray — more humble, I look again and again to the one who cherished Mary and mentored Christ for us!