Really Hearing What’s Being Said

My friend Susan Stabile shared this story.  I’m eager to share it with you:

Pope Francis departed from his prepared text to share an anecdote during his general audience on Wednesday.  He told this story of an elderly woman who helped an immigrant…

As the lady came across this young man, who was without shoes, they began to speak and she asked him, “What are you searching for?”

“Saint Peter’s to go through the Holy Door,” he responded to her question.

Moved with sympathy, she thought to herself: “But how can he walk? .. He doesn’t even have shoes. She insisted on offering a taxi to bring him. When the taxi driver stopped however, he was hesitant to accept the passenger, as he smelled very badly.

However, the driver agreed, as the immigrant and the lady got in and chatted on the way to the Vatican. They spoke about his history, what he has lived through, the trials, the war, etc.

By the end of the ride, the lady went to pay, and the driver, who hesitated to accept them, said: “No, Signora. It is I who must pay for you, because you made me listen to a story that changed my heart.”

Susan poses the perfect question: How open is my heart to being changed by the stories I hear?

_____________

You may read this story and follow Susan on her blog, Creo en Dios [here].  

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
______________________
Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Where we were on 9/11 remains etched in our consciousness — meeting with an elderly woman named Hildegard. Those of my generation remember where we were when Kennedy was shot — Sr Monique’s 8th grade math class. My dad recalled spontaneous parades down main street in Hartington, Nebraska on Armistice Day, 1919.

Today, November 30, I vividly remember where I was thirty-five ago on this day — St. Francis Xavier Church on the St Louis University campus. I was a graduate student. It was Sunday. John Kavanaugh SJ was presiding at the popular campus liturgy.

In his welcome, John announced that Dorothy Day had died the previous evening. Like other moments indelibly etched in our consciousness, there was an audible gasp. We recognized the world would never be the same, grieving our collective loss.

Day was more than the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was the moral conscience of a nation. She spoke truth to power, not only regarding Viet Nam, but in the way our culture denigrates the poor and dismisses those on our peripheries. Visiting the U.S. these thirty-five years after her death, Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day (along with Thomas Merton) as exemplars of the very best American Catholicism has to offer.

We too easily assume those we want to call “saints” live with some super-human grace, operating on a different spiritual plain than the rest of us. Not only is that bad theology, it’s simply wrong! As David Brooks has pointed out in his current best-seller, “often enough they live in an even less ethereal way that the rest of us. They are more fully of this earth , more fully engaged in the dirty practical problems of the people around them.” (emphasis mine)

That was certainly the case with Dorothy Day. Brooks is only the latest to observe that “Day and her colleagues slept in cold rooms. They wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. Day’s mind was not engaged by theology most of the time, but by how to avoid this or that financial crisis, or arrange for this person to receive that treatment.”

Again, nothing super-human. Nothing ethereal, just down and dirty living the ordinary stuff of life with others. Brooks makes this point by quoting a 1934 journal entry in which she describes a typical day: woke up, went to Mass, made breakfast for the community, answered correspondence, did some bookkeeping, read a book, wrote an inspirational message to others.

Included in that day’s routine activity Day records that someone came looking for a special outfit for a 12 y/o girl, a recent convert came to share some spiritual writings, a Fascist appeared trying to incite discontent among the residents, an aspiring art student arrived with some drawing of Catherine of Siena, and on and on.

This sounds a lot like an ordinary day that passes with no special note, polar opposites of 9/11, the day Kennedy was killed, or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! Yes, there are the iconic images of an elderly Dorothy Day placing a single white daisy in the barrel of a heavily equipped police officer’s gun. Mostly, invariably, she just lived everyday as it came, doing whatever needed doing, attending to whomever she was with.

To emphasize the point, David Brooks cites the German medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer. He did not hire idealists for his medical mission in Africa. Nor did he want anyone with a righteous sense of how much they were giving to others, or those intent on doing something heroic for the world.

Brooks emphasizes that Schweitzer “wanted people who would perform constant acts of service with the no-nonsense attitude that they will simply do what needs doing.” Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, most of the time? Take it as it comes! Do what you can do, especially for those who need it most.

Thirty-five years later I am reminded to make this my routine, day by day.
________________
I enthusiastically recommend David Brook’s The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015 from which I took inspiration for this reflection. My quotes are from Chapter 4, locations 1855 and 1866 of the Kindle edition.

Too Many Losers

Know the difference between winners and losers? Winners are those who have failed more than losers! No, this isn’t some clever turn of a phrase. It’s the truth! Yes, winners somehow overcome their fear of failure. Or, they let go of their need to be in control or to appear perfect.

Winners are those who understand they will fail — again and again. More importantly, winners accept — even invite — imperfection, mistakes and failure as part of the process of growing, living, learning. It’s as if winners somehow turn fear on its head by indulging the freedom to fail. They seem to live by some liberating appreciation that winning really is more fun than losing!

Case in point… I’m a really crappy swimmer. I’m scared to death of water. I could probably “save myself” but I make very effort never to find out. Pools are not fun places for me — I’m not in control, paralyzed by fear, avoiding any risk of “jumping” into deep water! Imagine how much fun I have missed because of my fear of failure, unwillingness to make a mistake, of not being “perfect.”

Here’s a true confession… this distinction between winners and losers came to me while reading about Thomas Merton’s fascination with Zen Buddhism and Russian Orthodox theology. While critically noting what he judges to be “mistakes”, Merton expresses admiration for each tradition’s willingness to ask bold questions and rend “profound insights into the real meaning of Christianity — insights which we simply cannot ignore.”

Perhaps his ability to admit his own limitations and partial understanding, Merton appreciated Buddhism and Orthodoxy’s freedom to make mistakes “in order to say something great and worthy of God.” He muses, “One wonders if our theological cautiousness is not after all the sign of a fatal coldness of heart, an awful sterility born of fear, or of despair.”

Yesterday Pope Francis gave us a picture of what this might look like in the concrete while a guest at a large Lutheran church in Rome. A Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man told him of her pain in not being able to take communion together in each other’s churches.

Saying “life is bigger than explanations and interpretations,” Francis suggested that we should not be held captive by abstract theological principles. Ultimately, we are each bound to follow our well-informed, mature moral conscience.

“It is a question that each person must answer for themselves,” Francis said, suggesting that even the church’s authority is below that of God’s in such personal matters. Francis offered a pastoral response to the woman: “There is one baptism, one faith, one Lord, so talk to the Lord and move forward. I dare not, I cannot, say more.”

Live! Jump in! Swim!  “Pick up your mat and walk!” Or expressed in yet another way, “love casts out all fear.”  In that grace, we are set free.  In this truth, we are all winners!
___________________
My reference to Thomas Merton quotes Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Liturgical Press, 2015. p. 12.
You may read the Reuters report of Pope Francis’ visit to the Lutheran Church in Rome [here].

Doing What We Must

How did I ever managed to keep a job? At the end of each day there remains so much left undone! Retiring two years ago seems to have only shifted treadmills. I only have a husband and a dog — how do other people do it?

We can identify sources, suggest reasons, even assign blame. One thing for sure, it’s a whole lot bigger than any one of us, my particular family or our “plugged-in” digital culture. It would be futile to try rolling back our lives to some idyllic past that exists only in our imagination. How, then, do we live well within the truth of our lives?

One wake-up call came via David Gregory’s new book, How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey. You may recall Gregory as a former White House correspondent for NBC and then moderator of Meet the Press. Married to one of four federal prosecutors who gained the conviction of Timothy McVeigh, he and Beth Wilkinson are the parents of three young children. They certainly ride the crest of our frenetic, digitalized culture.

It took this Jewish author, wrestling with the salience of his faith and values they want to pass on to their children, to remind me of something foundational: Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.  Wham — keeping Sabbath ranks right up there with (in fact it gets higher billing than) not killing, stealing or committing adultery.

That having been said, an important proviso needs highlighting. Pope Francis offered that essential reminder in a different context this week. Our “obedience” is not a ploy to earn or deserve God’s love. No, mature obedience is our generous response to finding that we are already loved by God.

We keep Sabbath, not to placate a vengeful God, but in faithful gratitude for having been created in God’s own image and called into Covenant relationship. That spirit comes through in the simple meditation David Gregory reads around the family dinner table on Fridays:

As I light these Shabbat candles, I feel the frenzied momentum of the week slowly draining from my body. I thank You, Creator, for the peace and relaxation of the Shabbat, for the moments to redirect my energies toward the treasures in my life which I hold most dear.

All Ten Commandments prescribe elemental parameters for who we are, practical reminders of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden — we too easily think we are God, or at least need to act as if we are gods. Yes, regularly pausing to take a breath seems impractical, impossible, foolish — and that is precisely the point!

Keeping Sabbath is not just a Jewish thing; it’s a human necessity. It prescribes that we at least slow down, if not stop. We are reminded to let go, look around, remember and savor creation. Shabbat is time to observe, perhaps to see; to listen, perhaps to hear.

On the sixth day of each week we too look over all God has made, and we see that it is very good! We remember who we are, as a person, as a people, as creatures within a most splendid creation.

We do so in obedience to a Covenant that binds us in love only to set us free.

_______________

How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey by David Gregory.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. My reflection was inspired by pages 65-68.

Pope Francis’ comments about obedience were made during a homily at a weekday Mass earlier this week.  My source was a post on Twitter.

Lead As You Care to be Led

Jeffrey A. Krames is clearly a go-to sort of guy on the topic of leadership. As vice president and publisher of a McGraw-Hill’s business division, Krames edited and published more than 275 books. Perhaps he’s known best as the author of the 2005 leadership classic, Jack Welch and the 4 E’s of Leadership. He knows excellence when he sees it and the qualities that undergird a leader’s effectiveness.

Jeffrey Krames is Jewish — all the more significant that he would add to a very long list of books available about Jorge Mario Bergoglio by authoring Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis. In his Prologue he explains that “this is not just another leadership book. It is a deeply personal one.”

Krames makes it quite clear that his book is not confessional; his interest is other than Catholic faith or theology. Precisely as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, Krames celebrates Francis as a leader “who places enormous value on respect, dignity and humanity in every shape, color and form.”

Thankfully, the book is addressed to ordinary folks who may have no professional training in business, management or administration but still find ourselves called to a variety of leadership roles. Isn’t that all of us?

Here are the twelve lessons of leadership Karmes derives from observing Pope Francis:

  • Humility — “I’ll stay down here.” after being elected Pope and expected to mount a dias to receive the electing cardinals.
  • Immersion in the group your lead — “Smell like your flock.”
  • Honest assessment of people — “Who am I to judge?”
  • Reinvention — the church needs to “surge forth to the peripheries.”
  • Inclusivity — “Walk through the dark night” with your constituency.
  • Shunning insularity — “Self-sufficiency is evident in every false prophet.”
  • Pragmatism — “Live on the frontier.”
  • Care in decision-making — “I am always wary of the first decision.”
  • Decentralization — “I see the church as a field hospital.”
  • Being where you are needed, acting as it is needed — “Go there, live there, and understand the problem.”
  • Confronting adversity head-on — “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests have committed.”
  • Reaching beyond your constituency — “A Church the ‘goes forth’ is a Church whose doors are open.”

Whether a small business owner, a teacher, a manager, CEO, parent, spouse or neighbor the wisdom Krames distills from Francis’ compelling style is certainly something we all would do well to cultivate.
____________
I have not yet had the opportunity to read Krames’ book and am wholly indebted to an excellent review by Trappist Mark Scott, abbot of New Melleray Abbey published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Vol 50.3 (2015) pp. 383-385.

Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].