Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”
This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”
These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.
It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.
Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!
Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.
This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.
Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?
Especially when I was an adolescent sulking about one thing or another Mom used to say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it.” My 65+ years has confirmed, yet again, her profound wisdom.
Today I happened upon something that reminded me of Mom’s counsel. It came from someone I’d never heard of, a 14th century Flemish mystic named John Ruusbroec. What immediately grabbed my approval and appreciation is that he wrote in the Dutch vernacular, the language of the common people of the Low Countries rather than Latin, the “official” language of the Church and academic texts.
Like my Mom’s down-to-earth sensibilities, Ruusbroec had the ability to say profound things with words ordinary folks could understand. Here’s his zinger which stopped me in my tracks, “You are as holy as you want to be.” Whoa! That certainly places responsibility where it belongs.
But here’s the glitch… my 65+ years assures me that, left to my own devises, I am incapable of becoming the “good person” my perfectionism wants me to be. I am slowly accepting that I will never be the virtuous person of my dreams. If Lent showed me anything this year, it was that I am incapable of being my own savior. Rather, I am quite powerless when left to my own devices.
But isn’t that in direct contradiction to Mom’s wisdom and what Ruusbroec counseled? In my robust willfulness I would have thought so. But if the passion, death and resurrection means anything it means following the example of Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.”
There is something — Someone! — greater than me. There’s a counter-cultural challenge if I’ve ever heard one. Salvation comes in letting go to the One who has the power, and the will, to save us. Ouch!
Yes, life is pretty much what we make of it. I am as “holy” as I want to be. But my power, my ability to make any of this happen is grounded in my willful choice to let go! This is a slow process, a very slow process. It takes a very long time, actually more than a lifetime!
I’m concluding that our goal is not to “be” holy. Rather, we become holy — and not by ourselves or on our own. The best any of us can do is to die trying. That is probably the most important lesson Mom ever tried to teach me.
I came upon the quote by John Ruusbroec in Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality by Carl McColman, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame IN, 2015, p 124. Thanks to Carl McColman as well for inspiring my reflection, especially pp 118-119.
Simply profound and profoundly simple…
Long ago the Roman stoic philosopher Cato said that “he was never so busy as when he did nothing, and never less solitary than when he was alone.”
Attributed to Cato by Cicero, De Republica 1.7, trans. Francis Barham. My source is: Monastic Practices,Revised Edition, Charles Cummings, OCSO. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, 2015, p. 49.
God, apparently, loves feasting. Nothing secretive or peaceful about it. A brash new star, exotic foreigners, ecstatic shepherds, choirs of angels—not just a quiet messenger, but hosts of them, pouring through the night sky singing “Glory.” God chose to celebrate this feast “just at the worst time of the year,” to be a light in the darkness, to comfort us on our lonely road, to prove over and over again that the things of the world are good, that fun is an ethical concept. Perhaps this is what is meant by “blessed are the poor”—they know how to feast.
I wish I were able to feast with this extravagant host. I am appalled by my pusillanimous responses: by the minginess of my imagination. I tend to criticize the menu (“virgin birth so out of date”) and carp at the behavior of less refined guests (“oh, not ‘Hark-the Herald’ again”). I wear jeans not my wedding garment, and I want the children to “calm down” and not wake up too early in the morning.
Of course they should wake up early, of course they should be overexcited, of course they should run amok and tear open their presents with greedy zeal. This is the feast day of a God who so delights in matter, in the stuff of the universe, in bodies, that he plunges into it all head first, and becomes a child. This is the feast day of a God who rips the invisible membrane between time and eternity so heaven floods the world, in an extravagant and abundant tide of love, and the world laps back, carried undiluted to the everlasting banquet. The feast of a God who comes into the cold, the dark, the silence of our prosperity and says, “Let’s party.”
This is only the conclusion of a marvelous piece that first appeared in Commonweal in 1997 and has been reprinted in the current issue. I encourage you to read the full article [here].
At the hermitage this weekend. Just want to share a couple of things that have attracted my attention this morning:
“Jesus and other mystical prophets testify that when it comes to wisdom, it is not the years that count, but the mileage — the roads we have traveled. Our unique lives vary widely in their breadth, scope, and depth, and older does not necessarily mean wiser. The latitude of any life is defined in less quantifiable dimensions: the intensity with which we have lived, our deliberate choices, the tragedies we have endures, the failings and disabilities we have integrated.” -Joe Grant, MDiv
And then there is always the incisive and insightful Mary Oliver:
Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
come to any conclusions?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?
I say this, or perhaps I am just thinking it.
Actually, I probably think too much.
Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.
Quote from Joe Grant, MDiv is from his essay, “Growing Down to Earth, Maturity in Meekness” published in Ripening, Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy. Vol. 1, No. 2; Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013.
Poem by Mary Oliver is from A Thousand Mornings: Poems. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012, p. 7.
Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.
The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.
Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.
Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.
This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.
Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.
This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.
Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”
May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.
When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.
Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.
But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!
Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.
No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine? I guess the choice is mine!
We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations. We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us. And that’s a good thing!”
Strange how our brains work! This morning my nephew’s six kids, ages 4 to 14, came to mind as I was reading about second century Egyptian hermits. Truly, such an improbable connection surprised even me.
Yes, the kids are pretty typical in every way with their child-like antics and periodic meltdowns. Though we love them, the general chaos of the household leads us to stay with their grandparents when we are in Omaha. Add our niece’s three kids who are regularly part of the mix and you have quite a catalytic explosion on your hands.
But as we have visited or hosted the families and viewed photos on Facebook, we’ve noticed something exceptional. They really get along! They are a cohesive unit. Yes, they fight and sometimes throw fits if they don’t get their way. But the care and bond each has for the other is palpable. Every child should be so lucky to grow up in families with siblings and cousins like these children.
So, here’s the piece from the second century desert hermits that worked its strange alchemy on me this morning. The bizarre juxtaposition still brings a quizzical smile to my face:
Abba Pambo, one of the early monks of Nitria, received a visit from four monks of Scetis. As each one talked to Pambo, he spoke of the others’ virtues. One had fasted, another had lived in poverty, the third was known for charity. The fourth monk, who “had lived for twenty-two years in obedience to another man,” was praised as the greatest. Pambo said, “Each of the others has obtained the virtue he wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if they persevere to the end.”
What we have noticed about our nephew and niece’s kids goes beyond the fact they get along and like each other. They truly care for each other — they watch out for each other and have each other’s back. They have learned how to share — perhaps the proximity of so many others has something to do with making this a necessity. Yes, each is right on schedule with the normal stages of strong ego development! But they have a quality of self-giving within a web of community that is remarkable in 21st century America.
We can spout all sorts of platitudes about family values and how parents are our first and best teachers. All this is true. Though my nephew, my niece, and their spouses would absolutely deny it and call me deluded and uninformed; they and their kids come about as close to the ideal as is humanly possible.
Yes, their kids are still children! However, from my vantage of 65 years I see them ideally positioned to one day comprehend the fullness of the Christian proclamation…
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to death–
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
In another place Scripture says, “…and a little child shall guide them.” Today my grandnieces and grandnephews have much to teach this old man.
The story about Abba Pambo is originally from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed CS 59. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984. #196 (Pambo 3). I read the account in Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition by Jane Foulcher. Cistercian Publications. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2015. pp 75-76.
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.