Returning to Work

[The post that showed for today was not ready for posting, but here is my sub]

I am jumping back into the fire today [was written Wednesday] as I prepare for a series of classes and talks, so I will be sporadic for a stretch. I have enjoyed this space of vacation to write with a certain creative freedom. I leave with a sense of deep sadness and soaring gratitude. Ready now to return to labora, after this week’s retreat into the family oratory renewed my spirit.

Our time away ended with a family karaoke, singing everything from Kanye West’s crazy Lift Yourself to Regina Coeli in harmony to a finale of Ophelia by the Lumineers.

Until my next post, thank you for reading, and peace out.

Eat books

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” ― Annie Dillard

My grandfather once wrote to me, “There is a paucity of philosophically inclined people these days, few who wish to go deep enough to see there is more to life than maximizing fleeting pleasure and avoiding pain. Though this utilitarian ethic may swell a growing economy, it shrivels the soul. Such lives lived usually in the end yield more pain than pleasure, or at least increase the consumption of pain killers. Sad to live in those shallows, missing that pain faced with courage is the only way to live life full, is the only path to lasting pleasure, is the surest needful cost of loving.”

Were it not for the intervention of extraordinary people in my life, I would have remained such a surface skimmer. Exceptional teachers, mentors, exemplars, ass-kickers — grand/parents, educators, clergy, friends, authors.

My father always said to me, “Three commitments you must make if you want depth: read, read, read.” A member of my dissertation committee said to me, “If you want to do this work seriously all your life, my advice to you is simple: Eat books.” A priest from Brooklyn I was close with many years ago told me, “Never fall asleep at night without having read for at least five minutes the thoughts of someone greater than you. Preferably from some piece of great literature. And at least thirty minutes with Sacred Scripture.”

My mom would often say to me when I was young, referring to my terrible diet habits, “Junk in, junk out.” And my dad once added, “And that applies to all of life. Friendships, music, TV. Especially reading.” My dad would also say, “You can always tell a preacher who doesn’t read. No depth, impoverished imagination, no challenge, no new, just recycled junk.” Or as Deacon Jim Keating frequently quips, “Too often pulpits sound with words drawn not from the deep wells of silence and contemplation, but from Homily Helps.”

Both my father and grandfather were corporate executives with families, swamped in lives of frenetic activity, and always managed to make time for reading. For that, I am grateful.

I have tried to remain faithful to these exhortations. I have a stack of books next to my bed. Theology, philosophy, science, literature. Joke books. I carry something with me whenever I know I will have to wait on something or someone. I listen to books on CD in the car, and particularly to any recordings by great authors reading their own works. Mostly, I love poetry. Frost, Yeats, Donne, Auden, Browning, Wilde, Dickinson. Especially, I love e.e. cummings, like this.

And I love to read aloud, as it enriches the sensual impact of the book, so I will take my free time to a lonely haunt somewhere, and read. Preferably by the water.

Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!

Oh, and see Brandon Vogt’s fabulous advice on how to make it happen.

Overcoming alienation

A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labor, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. — Karl Marx

I was at a McDonald’s getting a burger last year, and a remarkable thing happened. I had ordered my food and was waiting at the counter for my number to be called, reflecting on how preposterous it was that I was getting impatient after only a few minutes had passed, grumbling, “I thought this was fast food! What’s taking so long?”

Then I thought, how quickly an instant gratification culture erodes that key virtue which sustains us in every other worthwhile endeavor, patience. Patience is the ability to pati, “to suffer or endure” inconvenience, difficulty, resistance, pain, delay in the pursuit of any and every good. The ability to wait without complaint.

Lost in these thoughts, and still waiting on my order, I was suddenly interrupted by an elderly African American woman who approached the counter and said to the cashier in a very loud and insistent tone of voice, “I want to speak to your cook who made our food.” The cashier sheepishly replied, “Yes, ma’am, just a minute.” As she walked back, there was an awkward silence and I prepared to witness a confrontation.

A man, probably in his mid-30’s, came out and said to the woman, “Yes ma’am? Can I help you?” She said, “Son, I just wanted to thank you for making such a fine meal for me and my family. You do good work and God bless you for doing it.”

The expression on his face was indescribable — a mixture of puzzlement and pride. Donning a smile, he said, “Well, alright. Thank you, ma’am, that’s so kind of you. I appreciate that very much.”

I at once felt both amazed by her gesture of gratitude, and convicted of my own self-absorbed response to the ‘delay’ in my food’s arrival. I also thought of a man I befriended when I lived in Connecticut who was once a chef himself. Whenever he and I went out to eat together at a restaurant, he would send word to the chef through the server complimenting something very specific about the meal. A number of times, the chef would come out to thank him for the kind words, probably because the specificity of the compliment revealed a chef’s mind.

As I sat in my car eating my food, that quote from Marx came to mind. How important it is to overcome this “alienation of labor,” in part, by maintaining a spirit of gratitude for the countless laborers who make possible all the things we take for granted every day, and to take time, when possible, to voice that gratitude directly. While the socio-economic and political questions of justice that Marx raised must be addressed on a large scale, cultivating a sense of human solidarity on a small scale with acts of gratitude, every day, can have powerful effects.

Since I witnessed this woman’s gesture, I have made it a point to, whenever I pray, begin with a litany of thanks as I look around me and see a world built and consecrated by the sweat of human labor.

Even if God doesn’t… “The Cross at Ground Zero”

As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action? — Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen

A friend of our family, who is a devout evangelical protestant, visited us not long ago and shared some of her recent very difficult family struggles. She shared with me a beautiful story of how she had prayed and begged God to resolve a very specific problem in a very specific way. “And,” she said, “I got what I asked for. I was over the top happy with God. Yay God! He saw the light! But it all ended up backfiring and making things much worse.”

As time went on, the issue ended up resolving in a way she had not expected which, she said, was far better and more creative than her idea. “But,” she continued, “for me what all of this was about was just how wrong my prayer was. I wanted God to do my will, I knew what was best, I wanted control, I wanted trust on my terms, I wanted my own version of happy ever after. And I was always angry when answers weren’t to my liking, even if I stuffed that anger away.”

Then she said, “In this recent thing, God taught me humility big time. Showed me that my faith had hinged on, ‘only if God does…’ instead of, as a song says it, ‘even if God doesn’t…’ I saw it’s not about getting what you want or making everything perfect, your way. It’s about trusting His way, which is perfect. But God’s perfect is so clearly not ours, right? That’s hard for me, still, but He’s so patient.”

How could I not think of my wife’s favorite verses from Scripture in Habakkuk 3:18-19?

For even though the fig tree does not blossom,
nor fruit grow on our vines,
even though the olive crop fail
and fields produce no harvest,

even though flocks vanish from the folds
and stalls stand empty of cattle,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord
and exult in God my savior.

What struck me most about her words was not that they conveyed some brand new insight, but that they were lived, hard won words. They were real, incarnate, alive in her own sincere struggle to persevere in faith, in discovering how divine order can be found in rubble. It’s true beyond true that faith’s wisdom must come first hand to us, by experience, or it only remains just an assent to ideas.

Spread love everywhere you go

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” — Saint Mother Teresa

When I go to local pharmacy not far from our house, there is a woman I’ll call Mary who works there, who really stands out. Great customer service skills, professional, funny, very joyful, always interested in how each person is when they come to her asking for assistance. And she remembers names. I notice whenever I see people around her that the tone in her zone is always “up.” While the rest of the store may be subdued, her section is alive with energy and laughter.

And whenever I walk in and she sees me, she shouts, “Hey Tom! How’s the family?”

After watching this for over a year, I finally caught her in an aisle one day and asked her, “Hey Mary, can I ask you? What is it that motivates you to be such a beacon of light here?” She said, “Real simple. God.” She went on to tell me about her very challenging life circumstances and said, “He’s what gets me out of bed after an all-night shift when I wouldn’t get out otherwise. He’s what gives me gas when I’m running on empty. He’s what makes me want to smile when someone scowls. He’s why I trust when everything and everyone says I shouldn’t.” Then she quoted from Psalm 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Then she said, “When I’m on break and I’m feeling low during the day, I sneak into the back room and open my Bible and His Word fires me up again. How do people do it without reading the Word? You know? I sure don’t know! Without Him, I’d be a miserable [in a whispered tone] b-i-t-c-h.” She laughed.

Then she said, “Well, I better get back to work. But let me say, Tom, that people like us, well it’s our job to bring the joy of the Lord around. Otherwise the world’s gonna get real real dark.”

Most Holy Trinity

“Holy Trinity,” El Greco.

In making the sign of the Cross, therefore, we not only remember our baptism, but we affirm that liturgical prayer is an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, who became incarnate for us, died and rose in glory. — Pope Francis

[re-post 2016]

Today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity celebrates, in the wake of last week’s feast of Pentecost, that God has been fully revealed to humanity in the death and resurrection of the Son of God and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

What about God has been revealed?

That God is One, but not solitary. That in divinity, unity is found in an eternal community of Persons-in-relation, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But the fact that this mystery of divine love was only fully revealed to us in and through the Paschal Mystery, above all on the Cross, tells us something else about God. Something absolutely stunning. It tells us that to-be-God means emptying, outpouring, expending oneself for sake of the beloved. Belief in the Trinity is belief in a God who is eternally emptying, outpouring, expending.

We can easily think of the Creed as a static snapshot of God who is frozen in an eternally changeless irrelevance. But in fact the Creed has us profess belief in a living, infinitely volatile, overflowing divine dynamism that is ceaselessly boiling, and over-boiling, in God. In fact, when we profess the Creed in faith, we cliff-dive in a free fall into the limitless Mystery of God.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God from whom the visible and invisible creation, vast beyond measure, exploded in a wildly excessive divine choice of pure giving: “Let there be!”

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom a Son is eternally being begotten as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” who took on human nature “for our salvation,” emptying Himself out in the most extreme manner, to the point of violent death on a Roman cross.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom the Holy Spirit is eternally, like an infinite fountain, “proceeding from” both Father and Son; and is being poured out without measure to give life to the world.

So it is no mistake that whenever a Christian invokes the threefold Name of God, he or she traces that most extreme symbol of the divine self-emptying: the Sign of the Cross.

But note well, we trace this sign not outward up into the sky, pointing heavenward, but inward onto our bodies, pointing heartward. For the self-emptying God longs to dwell both in us and through us out into the world, by conforming our lives to Their emptying, outpouring, expending love.

My God.

So making the Sign of the Cross not only invokes God’s Name, but is the baptismal invocation of our oath to live lives worthy of the divine Name by living lives inscribed by the finger of our self-emptying God, whose love is strong as death, whose passion is fierce as the grave (cf. Song of Song 8:6).

May it be so in us this day and to the Day of Eternity. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Stop, look, listen

[re-post 2013 with addition of fresh Pope Francis material. Intermittent posts until Saturday, May 26 as I begin a crazy stretch!]

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” ― Leo Tolstoy

A friend of mine who is a musician and works as an administrator at a college told me that when she gets stressed, or feels constricted by the press of deadlines or angry faculty, she slips out back into a small grassy area with her guitar and plays/sings for a few minutes before returning to her office. She said, “It’s a game-changer. Art billows the sails of my soul so I keep joy in my work.”

Such an artist.

Sometimes I feel this is becoming the only message I want to teach: “Stop! Look! Listen!” often enough to be present to the present moment.

The now alone is where God dwells, where life is lived, love is found (and lost), and where all joys finds a home. In so many ways, our culture of distraction smothers our contemplative capacity to receive reality at the “speed of life,” which yields its riches only to those who wait. In the words of St. Teresa, la paciencia todo lo alcanza, “patience obtains all.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! — 2 Cor. 6:2

Pope Francis said this all so eloquently in the new documentary on him:

We live with the accelerator down from morning to night. This ruins mental health, spiritual health, and physical health. More so: it affects and destroys the family, and therefore society. “On the seventh day, He rested.” What the Jews followed and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy. On Saturday you rest. One day of the week, that’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all these things. We are not machines!

Like the monks, we must choose to pause from the busy labors and activities of life, in rhythmic patterns, to transition into the Sabbath of play, song, dance, praise and thanksgiving. Making time to simply receive and lift up each moment restores wonder.

When I was on an 8-day silent retreat back in 2012, my 80-something year old spiritual director asked me to spend a whole day at the Omaha Zoo. He had me read Matthew 6:26-34 while I was there, which begins with these words:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

He said, “Ask God to let nature teach you as you spend that day.”

Biggest lesson learned? Linger longer over the many small things in the world, like Solomon the Wise:

Four things on earth are small,
yet they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people without strength,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people without power,
yet they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard can be grasped in the hand,
yet it is found in kings’ palaces. — Proverbs 30:24-28