From Want to Need

Sometimes my husband will say to me, “Do we need [some household or personal item]?” I almost always cringe at the “do we need” question, because the question never really concerns anything that could remotely be described as something we actually need. It may or may not be something one or the other of us wants, but there is certainly no need.

The distinction between need and want is an important one to be sensitive to, because we tend to elide them quite easily, moving very quickly, sometimes without realizing it, from thinking we want something to thinking we need it. Richard Rohr observes that “[w]hat we now call needs were formerly wants, and these needs have moved to such a level of sophistication that now luxuries are “necessities” for many of us. This keeps us quite trapped and un-free, and inherently unsatisfied.”

I’m not advocating emptying all of our possessions out into the street (although there are people who have taken the challenge of reducing their belongings to 100 items). But, we would do well to rememember, in Rohr’s words, that “most of God’s people have to learn to find happiness and freedom at a much simpler level” than we do. If our happiness depends on what we have rather than what we are, we are doomed to feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

Try this for a practice: resolve to be attentive to every time you or someone in your family says you “need” something (other than things like a quart of milk). Then look at what it is and ask yourself, is this really something we need? If the answer is no, ask yourself why you framed it in terms of a need. See where your reflection takes you.



In the weeks before the semi-annual weekend vocation retreat we hold for law students, we ask the students to give us the name of several friends or family members, without telling them why. We ask those whose names we receive to write notes to the retreatants encouraging them and assuring them of their prayers, and saying something about what makes them special to the person writing and send them to us. While the retreatants are eating lunch on Saturday, one of us slides the letters under their bedroom doors, where they find them in the free period that follows lunch. Even for those “repeaters,” who don’t get the wonderful surprise first-timers get when they find the unexpected letters, it is a very special part of the experience.

Despite my years of giving retreats and being on them, I had never known there was a name for this. But yesterday, there was a Facebook wall post from one of my friends requesting “palanca” for a group of people on a retreat he is involved in. I did what you might imagine – popped the word into Google – and learned that “palanca” is a Spanish word that means “to give lift” or “to rise.” In this context, a palanca is a letter of encouragement to a retreatant.

Often, palancas are written by friends or family members of the person on retreat. But sometimes they are written by complete strangers to the one on reatreat, as the one I wrote in response to my FB friend’s request.

One of the first sites that came up when I googled the term palanca was from a group that does prison ministry in New York. I’m guessing there are prisoners who participate in such retreats that do not have anyone to send them a palanca. Perhaps you might consider writing a short note to someone who has made a decision in prison to try to deepen (or establish) a relationship with God. The website is here, and it explains how to send the letters.

The palanca idea seems to me a wonderful one even outside of a retreat context. If there is someone you know going through a difficult time or who just seems to need a “lift,” think about dropping them a short note of encouragement today.

The Value of Small Contributions

I was thinking last night about yesterday’s Gospel, in which Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed “that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the larges of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

As I reflected on the words, several things came into my mind, seemingly at the same time:

The saying of Mother Teresa’s that we needn’t go great things, only small things with great love.

Something someone wrote in my autograph book when I graduated grade school: “When through one [person] a litttle more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth, comes into the world, then that [person’s] life has had meaning.”

And something I frequently observed when I was a Buddhist, that each step is a step toward wisdom or toward ignorance, toward compassion or toward anger.

Each in its own way conveys the same message as the mustard seed – every small contribution we make has meaning, is worthwhile. It is an important message.

We – or at least I – sometimes (or often) worrry about whether we are doing enough. Our work on behalf of the Kingdom seem so small, especially when there seems so much to be done. Such feelings can make us discouraged, which can make it hardr for us to even take small steps.

It helps combat those feelings to remember that all we need do is do what we can in each moment. If we do that, we don’t have to measure how big our act was. If we make our contribution, as little as it may at times be, God will help it grow.

Praying with St. Thomas Aquinas

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher, patron of Catholic universities, colleges and schools. One biography of him suggested that his life could be “summed up in a few words: praying, preaching, teaching, writing, journeying.”

Although we most often think of Aquinas as a theologian and philosopher (Leo XIII called him “the prince and master of all Scholastic doctors”), he was also a contemplative who had a rich prayer life. Whatever his other contributions, Aquinas wrote a number of beautiful poems and prayers that reveal this side of him. (I’ve shared before – here – my favorite one of his poems.)

This morning it seems fitting to share this wonderful Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, which expresses well the desire of so many of us:

Grant me, O Lord my God,
a mind to know you,
a heart to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
and a hope of finally embracing you.

Shining Our Lights

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus asks his disciples, “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” Mark is always a man of few words and one gets a fuller appreciation of Jesus’ message in Matthew’s version of the same teaching.

In Matthew, Jesus says:

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

I prefer the Matthean version because I think the last sentence is key.

We sometimes have a tendency to hide our talents, not wanting to be guilty of the sin of pride and wanting to be humble. But while humility is a virtue, false humility is not. Effectively Jesus is telling his disciples, you weren’t given your talents to hide them. You were given them for a purpose.

We are meant to use the talents we have been given – to share them broadly – not for our own glory, but for the glory of God. What we want is for the light of our lamp to shines, not on us, but on God.

True humility comes from seeing oneself clearly and recognizing our dependence on God. From understanding that our talents are gifts from our God. And if we remember that – that all we are and all we have is a gift from our God – we will be able to freely and fully place our lamp on a lampstand withough falling prey to either false humility or to pride.

Anima Christi

I spent much of the day yesterday preparing for an upcoming overnight Ignatian retreat for UST undergraduates so I woke up with St. Ignatius still on my mind.

A favorite prayer of Ignatius was the Anima Christi. The prayer is included at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, and Ignatius recommended reciting the prayer at the end of one’s prayer time. It is a prayer that I love and it is one I recite every day.

In its traditional form it reads:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from Christ’s side, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints
and with Thy angels
Forever and ever

The version of the prayer I use, which speaks to me more powerfully than the traditional version is by David Fleming, S.J. and it reads:

Jesus, may all that is in you flow into me.
May your body and blood be my food and drink.
May your passion and death be my strength and life.
Jesus, with you by my side enough has been given.
May the shelter I seek be the shadow of your cross.
Let me not run from the love which you offer.
But hold me safe from the forces of evil.
On each of my dyings shed your light and your love.
Keep calling to me until that day comes.
When with our saints, I may praise you forever.

“With you by my side enough has been given.” That is the truth we are invited to embrace to the core of our being – that Jesus is the only shelter we need and is the source of our strength and life.

Paul and Conversion

Today we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, one of few (if not only) feasts that celebrate someone’s conversion.

When we think of Paul’s conversion, we think of the episode we hear described in our first Mass reading from Acts – Saul hearing the voice of Jesus on the road to Damascus and being blinded by the encounter, after which he begins to “proclaim Jesus.” That gives us the impression of conversion as something that happens in a single instant.

Conversion, however, is better thought of as a process – a lifelong process of turning more and more towards God, towards the transcendent. Like Paul, we have moments of deep conversion that occur in the course of our lives, moments we can look back at and say – something earthshakingly significant happened to me here. But those moments are all part of an ongoing process of conversion that continues and is not complete until we die. Wherever we are on our journey at any given time, there is still need for growth, still need both for the deepening of our relationship with God and strengthening in the living out the consequences of that deepened relationship.

Understanding conversion as process helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our conversion journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace.

As we celebrate Paul’s conversion today, let us be open to the ways in which Jesus seeks to deepen our own converstion so that we may proclaiim Him more and more.

Advice from St. Francis de Sales

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Francis de Sales, bishop, writer and spiritual director. Although himself an ordained person, he believed that “holiness is perfectly possible in every state and condition of life,” and his writings are of wonderful benefit to all of us. (If you haven’t read any of his works and are looking for some reading, I’d recommend Finding God’s Will for You and Introduction to the Devout Life.)

Francis offers wonderful advice and teaching for our spiritual journeys. Among the useful reminders he gives is is to be wary of undertaking too many things at once, even those things that seem to us to be good. After talking about the ways various saints who have come before him had lived their lives he writes:

We should not want to practice many exercises at the same time and all of a sudden. The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work that he foresees we will never accomplish. This is to distract us from the prosecution of soem less excellent work that we would have easily completed.

This is important advice to keep in mind. It is easy to give in to the temptation to take on too many things when they all seem worthile and good. It is one I have to fight very hard because so many projects seem like wothwhile ways to further God’s plan. But I also know from experience that it is possible to take on so many different projects that one is overwhelmed and almost incapacitated from getting any of them done. This is precisely the goal of what Francis calls the “enemy” (what Ignatius would call the “evil spirit”).

We need to avoid the “spirit of the seducer [that] holds us down to mere starts” and remember that “it is not so much the beginning as the end that counts.”


In an column in the current issue of America magazaine titled Light Switch, Margaret Silf (who I love) quotes Helen Prejean saying, “When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ.'”

Light is a powerful symbol for us. Some of our ancestors entered New York Harbor and, seeing the light from the Statue of Liberty, would realize they had reached the end of a long journey. A lone traveler on a dark road is comforted by the present of a light up ahead that tells him he has found a place of rest. Many light a candle before beginning prayer, a tangible reminder of the presence of God who is always with us.

As Christians, we need to ask ourselves not merely how we will light our own little space, but how will we be light to the world. How will we bring the ligth of Christ to all those we meet? For surely, the world needs our light. As Margaret Silf writes:

The light is more needed than ever in our world today. The dark night seems to enshroud us and the storm clouds gather. How will that light shine in our own dark streets? We may bless the candles in church, but unless we carry the light out into a troubled world, the blessing will never be effective.

As Silf goes on to observe, we can be light-bearers in many different ways, large and small. The important thing is that we “pause and ponder any situations in which we might ourselves choose to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”

“He is Out of His Mind”

In today’s short Gospel from St. Mark, we are told that when the crowd gathered around Jesus – so dense that it was impossible for him and his disciples to even eat – his relatives “set out to seize him,” having determined that “He is out of his mind.”

From our vantage point, it is easy to be critical of the reaction of Jesus’ family. But we don’t konw what they were expecting from Jesus. Was this behavior inconsistent with the Jesus they had come to know as a youth and young adult? And certainly they had expectations that religious teachers would look like the priests and rabbis they were accustomed to; Jesus doubtless looked and acted very different from what they thought a religious teacher would look like. So they dismissed him, thinking he was crazy.

Instead of shaking our heads at their behavior, we would do better to ask ourselves: How do we respond to the presence of Jesus in our midst? And, more particularly in this context, are we open when Jesus appears in a guise that is different from the one in which we expect him to appear. How do we react when Jesus appears to us, not in someone with the trappings of a Dalai Lama, or a great Imam, or in the robes of a Christian cleric, but in someone who we have taken to be a quite ordinary person? Even harder, how do we react when the person calls us to something radically different than what we have expected?

The question we need to ask ourselves is how can we stay open to the manifold ways in which Jesus may appear to us in the world? And how do we recognize Jesus when he doesn’t appear in obvious ways? (It can’t be just that someone is followed by a large crowd – David Koresh had a lot of followers at Waco and I’m pretty comfortable saying that he was not the presence of Jesus.)

It is an important question to reflect on because, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we put God in a box. We expect God to appear and manifest presence in ways that we expect. They may be easy to poke fun at, but I suspect there are times when we react to the presence of Jesus much in the same way his relatives did.