How We Encounter the World

I was struck by a post by Aidan Rooney, C.M., on Finding our Way, written as he and some Vincentian Lay Missionaries were preparing for their trip to Ethiopia.  A participant’s observations about St. Louise’s artistic side prompted him to wonder about how he encounters the world.

Aidan’s comments directly address the beauty of Ethiopa, but one can apply his description to whatever locale one is in.  For all of God’s earth is “rich in experiences that can engage the senses. There are vistas, flavors, smells, textures, sounds that are all new.” 

Thus we can all ask ourselves the question Aidan asks of himself as he prepared for his trip: “Am I willing and prepared to allow all of this to inform both my head and my heart?”  Is the world and its beauty just the backdrop against which I go about my life?  Do I walk around inside my own head, so preoccupied that I don’t even notice what is there?  Or do I actually encounter the world?  Do I allow the “vistas, flavors, smells, textures and sounds” to engage my being?

And as you ponder these questions, say a prayer for the Vincentian Lay Missionaries as they go about their work in Ethiopia.

Update (added 7/2): I just picked up the current issue of America, which includes a piece by Margaret Silf, titled, Mind Where You Go. She writes, “How mindful are we, as we wander this world of ours? … All it takes is a bit of time, and open eyes and ears. … Time to stop and think and be available to the world around us, eyes to really see and ears to really listen to what is actually there: the wonders, the beauty…. Every square mile of this planet is holy ground if you walk it gently and midnfully and take the time to let it disclose its secrets. Every mile can be sacramental, waiting to reveal something of who God is.”

 

Humble Satifaction

Today’s second Mass reading comes from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy, a letter written at a time when Paul knows his life is coming to an end.  Looking back, he says, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.” 

But this is no braggard patting himself on the back for his great achievements, thinking it was all him.  For almost in the same breath he adds, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength so that through me the proclamation might be completed…And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”  I did well, but I did what I did through the grace and power of God.  Thus, says Paul, to God “be glory forever and ever.”

Good reminder for us.  There is nothing wrong with being pleased or satisfied with what we accomplish, with letting ourselves hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  But at the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we accomplish what we do through the grace of God, through whose power (in the words of the letter from Ephesians) we are able to accomplish far more than we could ask for or imagine, and for the glory of God.

Walking the Walk or Talking the Talk

Goethe once observed that all humor is based on truth and tragedy.  Apt line.

My friend Gerry e-mailed me this joke.  After I read it, I told him it would be cute but for the truth behind it.  He acknowledged that we probably all recognize parts of some people we know in that joke (including ourselves). I’m sure this one has made its way around the blogosphere before, but here it is:

A man was being tailgated by a stressed-out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman was furious and honked her horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, dropping her cell phone and makeup.

As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious state trooper.  The trooper ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.  He took her to the barracks where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a trooper approached the cell and opened the door.  She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting trooper was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, “I’m very sorry for this mistake.  You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him.  I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bumper sticker, the ‘Choose Life’  license plate holder, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday-School’ bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. 

“Naturally….. I assumed you had stolen the car.”

Observing the Ego

There is value in developing a consciousness of the things that set off our egoic reactions.  For me, one of the big triggers is someone appearing to question my competence.  It tends to set off an immediate reaction – I feel the indignation arise, often way out of proportion to the incident, which may be very minor.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from my dean, with whom I am meeting later today for my annual evaluation.  The e-mail said that he could not locate a copy of my annual report and asked if I had yet sent it.  If so, could I resend it; if not, he suggested it would be helpful to receive it before our scheduled meeting.  Pretty innocuous e-mail…no reprimand or annoyance expressed in it…implicitly but clearly acknowledged that he might have received it and misplaced it.  Yet my first reaction was one of annoyance and indignation.  In my mind swirled various thoughts around the idea of: “I sent the report in over a month ago.  How could he think I would not have submitted it in a timely fashion?  I don’t miss deadlines.  I always do things like this promptly.  I’m never late.”  Etc., etc.  And I could feel the swirl of negative feelings around the thoughts.

Of course, as soon as I became aware of what was going on, I realized how silly it was and the negative feelings dissipated.  The key of course is being aware – not getting completely caught up in the ego, but being able to step back and observe the thoughts and feelings.  The idea is not to try to actively do anything to stop them, but simply to observe without judgement.  If we can do that, the negative feelings lose their power and dissipate.  And I think developing a consciousness of the things that have the greatest tendency to set off these reactions in us is helpful to being able to not get caught up in them.

To be sure, this is not always easy.  But it is hard to have the peace of which Jesus and the New Testment writers speak if we can’t let go of our egoic reactions.  If we can’t step back, there will always be something preventing our minds and hearts from being at peace. 

Silence

I’m counting down the days (20) until my annual 8-day silent directed retreat.  Eight days of just God and me, together in the silence.

It is hard to capture in a few words how important that quiet time is for me.  Thomas Merton does a good job of explaining the importance of these times of silence with God in Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work.  He writes: 

If there is no silence beyond and within the words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious ideology. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the ultimate truth in silence. When this silence is lacking, where there are only the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity, but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet. Where there is no peace, there is no light. The mind that is hyper-active seems to itself to be awake and productive, but it is dreaming. Only in silence and solitude, in the quiet of worship, the reverent peace of prayer, the adoration in which the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of the Invisible God, only in these “activities” which are “non-actions” does the spirit truly awake from the dream of a multifarious and confused existence.

Community vs. Individual Achievement

I received a glossy 40-page or so brochure the other day from the law firm at which I practiced law before moving into legal academia.  The brochure highlighted the firm’s achievements in 2007 in its various practice areas.  It recounted an impressive amount of pro bono work in a variety of areas, including a partnership with ACCION NY (a not-for-profit organization serving microentrepreneurs) and representation on behalf of those seeking asylum.

However, what most impressed me was the fact  that nowhere throughout all the pages of the entire glossy report did there appear the name of any individual lawyer.  Rather than showcase individual stars, the focus was on the collective achievement of the firm.  I’m not saying there are not other venues in which the firm recognizes individual lawyers; certainly there are.  But what was celebrated here in this “annual report” was the firm, the community.

We live in a society that prizes individual achievement and goals, often to the exclusion of our lives in community and the achievement of communal goals.  The ego wants to know what I did, not what we did; wants glory for the self, not for the group.

But community is essential to who we are as humans.  We flourish in community and we are called to labor communally with God to transform the world to Kingdom.  That requires that we focus on the common good and on achievement of God’s plan, not on our own aggrandizement.  What matters is the realization of God’s vision for the world, not who has what piece in attaining it.  Yet the ego will always try to pull us away from the communal and toward the individual.

In my post about John the Baptist yesterday, I talked about John as a model for recognizing it was about God, not about him.  Albeit in a more secular context, the law firm’s brochure serves as a model for keeping the focus on the attainment of communal goals rather than individual ones, reminding us that it is about the people of God with God, and not about any one individual.

John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the nativity of St. John the Baptist.  For me, what is most significant about John – the thing that puts him front and center in my visualization of the communion of saints – can be summed up in this: John never thought it was about him; he always put the focus on Jesus and never thought he, John, should be the center of attention.

Think about it for a minute.  John was a special gift from God.  Not only were both his parents quite old, but Elizabeth was barren.  It was clear from the moment of his birth that this was an extraordinary child, that his life was blessed.  And when he started to “proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” people listened.  They came from miles around to hear John.  He was not handsome, he was not well-dressed or elegant, he didn’t give elaborate dinner parties, yet they came and they listened because he spoke with the spirit and authority of God. 

How many people in John’s position would have so easily stepped aside when Jesus came onto the scene?  So many people would have been temped to say, “I’m doing fine here; who needs this one.  I’m famous; people want to hear me.”  But what did John say and do?  Comparing himself to Jesus he said, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”  “He ranks ahead of me.”  Many other leaders would have feared that their disciples and followers would depart from them in favor of this new leader.  John told his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God.  Go to him.”  When they complained to him that people were going to Jesus to be baptized, John said, “I am the best man, he is the groom.  He must increase; I must decrease.”

In a world in which we see so many people trying to be number one, putting themselves front and center, John is a worthy model.  John had a role – he was sent by God to testify to the light – and he accepted and embraced that role.  He never sought to make himself more important than he was. 

When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers.  We point the way for others to follow by our words and our deeds, and we need to ask ourselves: do we point the way to Jesus?

P.S.  John Kavanagh, S.J., has a piece in the current issue of America that is interesting in this regard re the role of priests.  Prompted by recent news attention given to several evangelical preachers, he observes, “The priest preacher is a mediator. The danger is that the mediator can become the message. If the preacher is short on self-knowledge and personal restraint, his own preaching becomes, sadly, more important even than the Eucharist itself or, in non-eucharistic congregations, more important than even the Gospel. The preacher becomes the message. And that is disastrous.”  (HT: Amy Welborn)

The Gift of Music

I awoke this morning with music in my soul.

My daughter sings in a chamber choir that is part of a large community music program.  Yesterday was their farewell concert, their last concert of the year before they leave in a couple of weeks to sing at an international music festival in Prague, Vienna and Salzberg. 

The description of the choir written by its founder and conductor says that “choir members are encouraged to perceive the beautiful and spiritual significance of music…[and] to become a part of something greater than themselves, and seek to understand love and beauty.”

Music does that.  Opens us to something greater than outselves….lets us understand love and beauty…lifts our soul.  As I listened to the beautiful, clear young voices I could feel the presence of God.  One could not listen to that music and not be filled with love.  Music does that.

The girls  closed with a song called Bless this Choir,  with words written by the conductor to some music of Haydn.  It is a beautiful prayer, not only for the girls, but for all of us.  The ending verse prays:

“God, our father, hear thy servants
As we offer this our song.
We, thy children ask your blessing
On this choir we hold so dear.
Give to us O Lord, gentle hearts always.
May our thougths be pure and free.
When at last our dreams are over,
Gather us in your arms and hold us near.” 

 

Do Not Be Afraid

In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reminds his disciples that they are always held in God’s loving protection and need fear no one.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.  Even all the hairs of your head are counted.  So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

This is not a promise that bad things will never happen to us.  We may face serious illness or disease, violence at the hands of another, unemployment and financial hardship, betrayal by a friend, the death of someone we love dearly.  We may, indeed, doubtless will, face any number of adversities in our lifetimes.

The promise is not that bad things don’t happen.  Rather the promise is that we face nothing alone; God is with us in all.  And the promise is that our earthly sufferings “cannot kill the soul,” cannot deprive us of our relationship with God.

The challenge for us is keeping that promise close to us.   Fear will rise on occasion and, unchecked, can seem to pull us into a black hole.  And so we need to hear these words over and over again so that when the fear rises we can hear Jesus speaking the words in our hearts.  And we need to hear the words over and over again so that when fear rises in another, we can help them to hear Jesus’ words in their heart.

Of Trees and Land and Ownership

I’ve been enjoying sitting on the back deck in the evenings after dinner.  As I sit with the sun to my back, my view is dominated by a number of large beautiful trees.  Majestic.  Awe-inspiring.  They are so alive with God.  I look at them and feel surrounded by God’s love and peace.

I glanced down at the base of the trees the other night and the thought started to form in my mind, “These trees are mine.”  Before the thought was even completed I was bowled over by the absurdity of the such a notion.  The trees are no more “mine” than the sun or the sky.  They are not my possession. 

It is true that in a legal sense I “own” the land on which the trees are growing and so I suppose I legally “own” the trees.  But as I sat and thought about even that statement, I appreciated why the American Indians found the idea of ownership of land so incomprehensible.  The land, the earth are God’s gift to all of us.  None of it is mine to possess for myself.  

In the words of Gaudium et Spes, “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all.”  The same document tells us that we “should regard the external things that [we] legitimately possess not only as [our] own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only [ourselves] but also others.”

The trees are not mine, no matter what we do legally to carve up God’s land among ourselves.  But I do like looking at them.  And I am deeply grateful they are there.