Happiness or Meaning?

I have often benefitted from the writing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Although he is now deceased, I continue to receive excerpts of his writing from the Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which shares his teachings and writings.

The piece that appeared in my inbox this morning was titled The Pursuit of Meaning. It began by referencing the Declaration of Independence’s statement of the right to the pursuit of happiness, and suggested that more fundamental to the sense of a life well-lived is, meaning. I thought the piece did a good job of distinguishing happiness and meaning, and explalining why meaning is more fundamental.

The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap. Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present, and future.

Happiness is associated with taking, meaning with giving. Individuals who suffer stress, worry, or anxiety are not happy, but they may be living lives rich with meaning. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but people often connect such moments with the discovery of meaning. Furthermore, happiness is not unique to humans. Animals also experience contentment when their wants and needs are satisfied. But meaning is a distinctively human phenomenon. It has to do not with nature but with culture. It is not about what happens to us, but about how we interpret what happens to us. There can be happiness without meaning, and there can be meaning in the absence of happiness, even in the midst of darkness and pain.

The piece gives the example of Viktor Frankl, as someone who brought the question of meaning into modern discourse. Frankl understood that life could have meaning even in the unhappiest of circumstances.

Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique: in our gifts, our abilities, our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our life. For each of us, then, there is a task only we can do. This does not mean that we are better than others. But if we believe we are here for a reason, then there is a tikkun, a mending, only we can perform; a fragment of light only we can redeem; an act of kindness, or courage, or generosity, or hospitality only we can perform; even a word of encouragement or a smile only we can give, because we are here, in this place, at this time, facing this person at this moment in their lives.

“Life is a task,” he used to say, and added, “The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission.” He or she is aware of being summoned, called, by a Source. “For thousands of years that source has been called God.”

As I was reading this, I recalled that a close mentor wrote in my grade school graduation album the wish, not may you be happy but “May your life have meaning.” And that is my wish for all of us,


Learning from Jesus’ Encounter with the Woman at the Well

The late Michael Himes has a book titled Doing the Truth with Love, a phrase I’ve always loved. And I think that it is a good way of describing what Jesus consistently models in his encounters.

To be clear: Love doesn’t mean anything goes.  Love doesn’t mean there is no sin.  Love doesn’t mean acceptance of all behavior.  And love doesn’t mean that we don’t speak and live out of our truths.  But love does affect how we respond to people who have missed the mark, who have strayed from the path. 

Today’s Gospel records Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  At the outset she is shocked that this Jewish man would even speak to her – a woman and a Samaritan woman at that.  But something in their conversation touched her deeply and John’s Gospel tells us that she left her water jug, ran into town and started telling people about Jesus.  Because of her witness, many began to believe in him.

It is the way Jesus speaks to her that matters.  Imagine how she would have reacted if his opening line had been something along the lines of, “You are such a sinful woman – you have had five husbands and you are now living in sin with someone who is not your husband!  Disgraceful!”  How open do you think she would have been to anything else he had to say?

Instead, Jesus talks to her about his being living water, explains that the water he gives will lead to eternal life.  And only after she asks for this water, does he say “Go call your husband,” and when she admits she has no husband, he tells her what he knows of her situation.  He says it without rancor, without condemnation.  And we see the result.

We are sometimes quick to reproach or condemn others.  May we instead find ways to encourage others in a more positive fashion – to speak truth with love.

[Cross-posted from the reflection I wrote for University of St. Thomas’ Lenten Reflections]

The Temptation of Good People

This past Sunday I preached at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church on the Gospel account of the temptation of Jesus. I used the three temptations described in our scripture as a way to talk about how people trying to lead good lives can be tempted into acting in ways that do not give glory to God.

Re-reading Walter Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me brought up another form of temptation for people trying to follow the call of God in their lives. In the context of discussing his own temptation to find a way to leave Russia and return to Poland when the ministry there was not what they expected, he says this:

And though our situation may have been somewhat unique, the temptation itself was not.  It is the same temptation faced by everyone who has followed a call and found that the realities of life were nothing like the expectations he had in the first flush of his vision and his enthusiasm.  It is the temptation that comes to anyone, for example, who has entered religious life with a burning desire to serve God and him alone, only to find that the day-to-day life in religion is humdrum and pedestrian, equally as filled with moments of human misunderstanding, daily routines, and distractions as the secular life he left behind in the world.  It is the same temptation faced by young couples in marriage, when the honeymoon is over, and they must face a seemingly endless future of living together and scratching out an existence in the same old place and the same old way.  It is the temptation to say: “This life is not what I thought it would be.  This is not what I bargained for.  It is not at all what I wanted, either.  If I had known it would be like this, I would never have made this choice.  I would never have made this promise.  You must forgive me, God, but I want to go back.  You cannot hold me to a promise made in ignorance; you cannot expect me to keep a covenant based on faith without any previous knowledge of the true facts of life….

It is a temptation that comes to every man and women, sometimes daily.

I’m guessing most of us can resonate with his observation. Surely we have all faced times when we questioned continuing on a path we felt called to. Perhaps Jesus did as well during his human life.

Temptation, of course, is a normal part of our humanity. The question is do we face it with the commitment to God’s plan Jesus (and Ciszek) did, or do we walk away?

PS You can watch my sermon on Lake Harriet’s website here. (It begins at about the 35 minute mark.)

Do We Pay As Much Attention to Positive Gestures as to Negative Ones?

I get a lot of newsletters in my e-mail and confess that they don’t all receive my full attention. But one I do try to read regularly is Joyce Rupp’s monthly reflection. The reflection I received this morning invites us to reflect on whether we see people as “essentially oriented to the good” or as “basically corrupted.”

Rupp’s post mentions a. book by Dutch author Rutger Bregman titled Humankind. His book presents stories designed to illustrate his contention that humans are “hardwired for kindness and cooperation.” He suggests that while humans have committed many horrific and evil acts, they commit a vastly higher percentage of good ones. The problem is that those positive action receive a lot less public attention than the evil ones, with the result that we have a tendency to view others suspiciously, rather than generously, thinking the worst of them rather than the best.

As Rupp recognizes from her own experience the “essence of human kindness is everywhere” if we only notice it.

So, do you notice the people shoveling snow for their neighbors, as many in the Twin Cities have done after last week’s major snowfall? Do you notice those collecting goods for local organizations providing assistance to those being hard hit economically? Or do you only attend to stories of stolen packages of porches and similar venal acts?

What we notice affects how we respond to others, whether we view them with suspicion or generosity, whether or not we trust in the fundamental goodness of human beings or not.

Lent is Just About Here!

Perhaps because I spent the latter part of January in the Holy Land, it is hard for me to believe that February 22 and the beginning of Lent is just around the corner.

Whatever else it does, Lent gives us a time to reset.  We speak of prayer, almsgiving and fasting as traditional Lenten practices.  That doesn’t mean we do these things at Lent and not at other times; these practices should be part of our lives as a normal matter. 

However, sometimes the busyness of our lives causes us to lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. Lent reminds us of their centrality to us perhaps our prayer has fallen off a bit, maybe gotten a bit rote.  Lent is a time to brush ourselves off and recommit ourselves to this path of Christian discipleship.

So, how will you reset? How will you use Lent as a time of recommitment?

As always, there are some wonderful resources to help in that process. Here are some:

The Jesuit Midwest Province has put out a wonderful booklet of reflections for self-guided prayer, which you can download here.

As usual, Creighton Online Ministries has put together an extensive collection of prayers, reflections, audio talks and practices, available here.

Loyola Press’ IgnatianSpirtuality.com offers its contributions to your Lenten prayer here.

St. Thomas More’s Lent retreat in daily living provides daily prayer material and both live and online small group meetings.

And, depending on where you are located and/or your ability to get away, I’ll be offering several Lent opportunities:

Parish Mission for Community of the Good Shepherd in Cincinnati, March 6-8 – The Lenten Journey

Weekend Retreat at Loyola Morristown Jesuit Retreat House, March 24-26, Journey of Sorrow, Journey of Love

Women’s Lent Retreat Day at Christ the King Retreat House in Buffalo MN, March 18; and they have several other lent opportunities available.

There is no shortage of resources. May you have a blessed Lent!

Yad Vashem

Although it was unplanned, it is fitting that my new friend Colleen and I visited Yad Vashem this morning, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust; it also recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Rather than words, here are some images from the visit. The first is a collection of victim’s shoes from the Majdanek death camp. The second is from the Hall of Names; since no cemeteries, headstones, or traces were left to mark the loss of the six million Holocaust victims, the Hall of Names is the Jewish People’s memorial to each Jew murdered in the Holocaust. The final is the Children’s Memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocause.

On this day of remembrance, it is good to keep in mind the words on one of the plaques at Yad Vashem: “A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates. (Kurt Tucholsky, German essayist of Jewish origin)

The “Holy Land” Doesn’t Always Seem So Holy

Hakimah (the program of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute I am here in the Holy Land for) is not a political program, but it is impossible to be here and ignore the political situation.  I say that for reasons like these:

One of the leaders of the program is a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Hebron.  She could not be with us for the opening session of the program because while on her way to Tantur, there was a shooting on the road that resulted in all traffic to be stopped for several hours, after which she was forced to return home.  (And, while she has a permit that allows her to be in Israeli territory, she is required to depart before a certain time in the evening.)

Another program leader a Jewish women originally from the US who is now an Israeli citizen, could not join us for our visits to either Bethlehem or Hebron, since the Israeli government prohibits its citizens from entering Palestinian territory.

Our guide for two of our trips, a Palestinian Christian man, could accompany us to some places in Hebron, but not to the synagogue we visited. 

It is one thing to read about checkpoints, and quite another to see the wall, and to watch the stream of people going in and out as they move between Palestinian and Israeli controlled areas for school or work.  To amount of time it takes…the ever present possibility of abuse…the uncertainty that one might be turned back at any time.  (Our guide was punched in the arm going through a check point with us, for no apparent reason.)

Today in Hebron, we walked down street after street of a part of the old city that used to be a thriving Palestinian market area, but which is now empty buildings, as the streets have been closed to Palestinians, and nothing except broken windows and locked doors has taken its place. it is literally a ghost town.

I could go on and on with things that make me want to weep.  We must find a way to do better.

Inside the wall in Bethlehem:

Al-Shuhada street in Hebron:

The Seat of Mary

Our first pilgrimage as part of the Hakimah program of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute was to the remains of the Kathisma Church. “Kathisma” is the Greek word for “seat,” and the church was built around the rock where, according to early Christian tradition, Mary rested while on the way to Bethlehem; it sits halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (There is reference to Mary’s resting both in the Protoevangelium of James and the Quran.). The rock was already a pilgrimage site by the time the church was built.

One of the first churches dedicated to Mary, Kathisma was built in 456, by a wealthy widow named Ikelia. The church was destroyed around the 11th century, and only discovered again in 1992.

A couple of things struck me as we were there. First it is clear that the existence of a prayer niche facing Mecca that the church was used by Muslims (who have enormous respect for Mary) as well as Christians.

Second is the octogonal shape of the church that was built around the rock – the number eight being a symbol of new beginning and resurrection.

Did Mary really rest here on the road to give birth to Jesus? I don’t know. But I am touched by the thought of so many pilgrims stopping along the way to touch the rock, to sit on it, to take water from the spring believed to flow from the rock.

It is easy to capture an image of the rock itself. But while I could not get a good picture of the outline of the church as a whole, this video gives you a good description and a bird’s eye view of the site.

Susan Arrives in the Holy Land!

I arrived yesterday in Jerusalem, where I am staying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, participating in its Hakimah program, which explores the role of women in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts and traditions. This is the entrance to Tantur:

This morning, with several other participants in the program (which officially begins this evening), I attended mass at the Greek Catholic Melkite Cathedral in the Old City. (Co-presiding at the service was John Paul, S.J., formerly my spiritual director and now rector of Tantur.). These pictures do not do justice to the icons which adorn almost every surface of the church’s walls and ceilings, but they give you a flavor.

I have wanted to go to Israel for a very long time, so am excited to be here. The program has a pretty full schedule, but I will try to post some highlights over the next couple of weeks.

Start Counting Your Blessings

Today is New Year’s Eve.  Many people are giving thanks that 2021 is just about behind us, although their reasons doubtless vary:  COVID, other health problems, loss of family members, economic setbacks, and so on.

Happy or not that the year is over, many, as they do each year, are putting the finishing touches on their list of New Year’s resolutions, resolutions that are unlikely to remain intact past the second or third week of the month (if they even last that long).

I saw first saw this suggestion some years ago, and saw it again recently. It seemed to me a better way to begin the new year than with half-hearted resolutions.  The suggestion was this:

This January, why not start the year with an empty jar and fill it with notes about good things that happen over the course of the year.  Then, on New Years Eve, empty it and see what awesome stuff happened that year.

Some of us do a daily Examen, part of which is giving thanks for all of the blessings of the day.  But I love the idea of watching the notes pile up in a jar that can then be re-savored at year end.

Why not give it a try?