Sloth and its Antidote

Yesterday, UST Law School welcomed Michael Schutt, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Law School Ministries. I have known and admired Mike for a number of years and so was delighted when he told me he would be in town and would have time for come for a lunchtime conversation with our students. His theme was Law, Calling and the Drudgery of Law School.

During his talk, Mike identified four challenges or difficulties we face as Christians in the legal profession (and in training for that profession) and their antidotes. The one with the most (at least initially) counter-intuitive antidote was sloth.

We tend to think of sloth as akin to laziness – sitting on the couch flipping the remote rather than doing our work. But the more dangerous sloth, Michael suggested is a spiritual sloth, which he described as recognizing the good and virtuous and ignoring it because we are so wrapped up in our work that that which we recognize as the good gets put aside. What Mike was describing was captured well in a comment made to me recently by someone I admire a great deal: he observed that he found himself of late attending to the immediate more often than the important. We can get so caught up in our business that we lose sight of where our attention ought to be placed.

Hence, said Mike, as strange as it may sound, the antidote to sloth is Sabbath – taking time in contemplation, stopping our activity. Describing something like the Ignatian examen, he suggested the students take at least ten minutes each evening where they completely “unplug” and sit and do nothing. He suggested the contemplate the events of the day, looking at where was the good, the virtuous, and where the good was lost sight of. As someone who frequently recommends to people that they engage in a daily examen, I was happy to have the students hear this advice from him as well.

Thanks for being with us today, Mike.

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I Believe in Jesus

Yesterday was the third meeting at the University of St. Thomas of the Fall reflection series on the creed I am offering at UST, at St. John’s Episcopal and at St. Hubert this fall. Our focus this week is on the second part of the creed, in which we express our faith in Jesus Christ.

What we, as Christians, fundamentally affirm here is the reality that we encounter God in and through Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean exclusively through Jesus – it doesn’t mean there are not other ways we encounter God. Many of us encounter God in nature, in music, in poetry, in all sorts of other ways. BUT, however else we encounter God, the focal point of our encounter with the divine is Jesus Christ. When we meet Jesus, we are face to face with God.

During this past week, the participants prayed with reflections by a number of spiritual writers on this part of the creed. We began the sessions (as we usually do) by giving the participants time to share in small groups a little bit about their prayer experience during this past week.

After the sharing, my colleague Jennifer Wright shared some reflections on what this portion of the creed says to her. Part of her focus was on the ways in which this portion of the Creed elaborate on both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity. (She used the whiteboard to illustrate and I attempted to recreate her attempt to illustrate her talk, which you can find here.) Her talk gave me much to think about and I suspect I’ll post some more about it sometime in the next several days.

This week, you get two podcasts for the price of one. You can stream the podcast of both the talk Jennifer gave yesterday and the one I gave at St. John’s Episcopal this past Sunday. You can also download the talks here (Jennifer’s talk, which runs for 14:37) and here (my talk, which runs for 17:14). You can find a copy of the prayer material the participants will pray with this week here.

Jennifer’s talk:

My talk:

Who’s in Control?

Yesterday afternoon I wrote as my Facebook status, “simply doesn’t have time to be sick.” And I don’t. I’m trying to address comments from my editor at Oxford U Press on my book adapting Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians, write two journal articles, both of which have deadlines in the not-to-distant future, keep up with class preparation, and prepare for a number of retreats I’m giving. (And a few other things also.) So, no I don’t have time to be sick.

But our declarations about what we do and don’t have time for are of limited value. Last night my body said enough and I left a dinner I was attending mid-way through because I realized I couldn’t focus much longer and still had to drive home. And after being up a good part of the night, my body refused to get out of bed at 5:30 this morning. (I groaned when I turned over and saw it was 7:00.) So I looked at my datebook and realized I only have one thing at 12:30 and can just stay home until then.

I don’t like being sick. I prefer to have things run according to my plans and that does not include feeling so hazy that I feel like I am operating in slow motion (not to mention blowing my nose every 12 seconds).

But experiences like this are useful reminders that we do not have the control we like to think we do over things. We would like to think we can will ourselves (and our environment) through whatever we choose. But we can’t. And it is useful to realize that.

Celebrating Vincent

Today I join with my Vincentian brothers and sisters around the world in celebration of the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a saint who occupies a special place in my heart.

My shorthand description for people who know nothing of this wonderful saint is that Vincent really got what Jesus was saying in the judgment passage in Matthew 25. You know the passage – the one where Jesus explains how the sheep and goats will be separated. Vincent took to his heart the message of this passage better than anyone else I can think of (although some of my Vincentian brothers come close).

Vincent looked at the faces of the poor and the marginalized and what he saw was the face of Christ. He once observed, “We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.”

Vincent’s heritage is a spirituality committed to uniting contemplation with action. The words of Robert Maloney, C.M., former Superior General of the Vincentians, on the relationship between prayer and action are a good reminder to all of us on this feast day of Vincent. He writes:

Divorced from action, prayer can turn escapist. It can lose itself in fantasy. It can create illusions of holiness. Conversely, service divorced from prayer can become shallow. It can have a “driven” quality to it. It can become an addiction, an intoxicating lure. It can so dominate a person’s psychology that his or her sense of worth depends on being busy.

An apostolic spirituality is at its best when it holds prayer and action in tension with one another. The person who loves God “with the sweat of his brow and the strength of his arms” knows how to distinguish between beautiful theoretical thoughts about an abstract God and real personal contact with the living Lord contemplated and served in his suffering people.

Wishing all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family a blessed feast day.

Remembering Whose Task We Are About

No matter how seriously we are committed to a spiritual path, our ego gets in the way sometimes. Our concern with building up our ego can cause us to envy the accomplishments of others rather than rejoice in them and it can put our focus (consciously or unconsciously) on making ourselves look good or important.

This is nothing new – Jesus’ disciples were no different from us in this regard. In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, we find the disciples arguing “about which of them was the greatest.” Then they complain to Jesus that there are others who are doing things in His name who are not part of their group.

What we forget at times, and what the disciples forgot at times, is that it is not about us. It is about accomplishing the task to which we have been appointed by Jesus. It is about furthering God’s plan of salvation, a plan in which each of us has a unique and necessary role.

When we remember that it is about God and God’s plan and not about us, it is a lot easier to understand that what matters is that the plan be fulfilled, not that we have a bigger role than others. When we remember it is about God and God’s plan and not about us, we can rejoice in others’ efforts to further the fulfillment of that plan rather than being envious.

We all can use a reminder now and then to keep our focus on God’s plan and God’s glory and not our own.

How God Values Us

Over the years, I’ve seen the same short analogy posted on various spiritual sites as a way to remind us of how God values us. I saw it again yesterday.

The analogy is to a hundred dollar bill. And the story simply goes: “As a brand new $100 bill, it is worth $100. As a crumpled old $100 bill, it is still worth $100.

It conveys in a simple way a message it is essential for us to get: Our value to God is never diminished. God loves us unconditionally and endlessly. God cannot love us any more or any less than God already does. As we read in Isaiah, we are precious and honored in God’s sight and that can never change.

It is true that we are imperfect. It is true that we behave badly sometimes. But we are near and dear to God always, even when we sin.

If we could really get that message, it would make an enormous difference to us.

They Were Afraid to Ask

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. Not a year has gone by where I haven’t had a student say to me something like, “I was afraid to ask this question in class because it is such a stupid question.” Not a year has gone by when I haven’t told my students they should always talk to me when they have questions. Yet I know they often don’t, that there are students who remain in their confusion rather than asking me a question.

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is clearly trying to convey something to his disciples he wants them to understand. “Pay attention to what I am telling you,” he tells them. Then he reveals that the “Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”

The disciples, however, did not understand what Jesus meant. Yet, “they were afraid to ask him about this saying.”

Every time I read or hear this passage proclaimed, I have the same reaction of frustration toward the disciples. Why didn’t you ask, I think to myself. If you didn’t understand what He was saying, why didn’t you say so? What were you afraid of asking this Jesus, who so often told you not to be afraid?

And I find myself asking similar questions to people who tell me they are having some area of confusion with God, dealing with something involving God that they do not understand. “Did you talk to God about that?” or “Why don’t you ask God about it?” I advise.

I think sometimes people are afraid to go to God with their questions. Perhaps they think it is a question they shouldn’t have. Or they may be afraid of the answer they might receive.

But there is nothing we can’t bring before God. No question we can’t ask, no hesitation we can’t raise. God wants always to draw closer and closer to us. And if there are things we fear to ask, places we are afraid to go with God, we keep God at a distance.

We never need to be afraid to ask.

The Example of Herod

“This may be the only time you hear this,” said the celebrant at yesterday’s noon Mass at the Law School, Fr. Erich Rutten (head of UST Campus Ministry), “but we should all follow the example of Herod.”

Out of context, the line seems strange – who would ever think of Herod of an example for Christian disciples? But in the context of yesterday’s Gospel from St Luke, the line made some sense.

Luke tells us that Herod “kept trying to see” Jesus. He had been hearing stories about this Jesus and wondered who was this person he kept hearing about. And so he “kept trying to see him.”

It was the persistent looking for Jesus that Fr. Erich was encouraging us to emulate. And he is certainly right that it is important for us to keep looking for Jesus in all of the ways He might appear to us. But as Fr. Erich was speaking, it occurred to me that there was another way Herod might be useful to us.

I have often had people say to me that they have looked for God and not found him. Or they’ve asked God something and gotten no answer.

Thinking of Herod in that situation might be useful. Why was it that Herod kept looking for Jesus and never found him? And answering that question might help us see whether there are ways we are like Herod – like him in ways that make it difficult for us to see Jesus.

Herod wanted to see Jesus, but did he really want Jesus to transform him? I think of Herod, who liked listening to John – who knew there was something there – but still executed him to save face with his friends. Herod, who wanted to see Jesus, but was comfortable in the life he had.

Are there ways we are like Herod? Good question to ask yourself.

I Believe in God…

Yesterday was the second meeting at the University of St. Thomas of the Fall reflection series on the creed I am offering at UST, at St. John’s Episcopal and at St. Hubert this fall. Our focus today was on the first part of the creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. (As I explained in my post last week, we are using the Apostles’ Creed for purposes of this program.)

During this past week, the participants prayed with reflections by a number of spiritual writers on this first part of the creed. We began the sessions (as we usually do) by giving the participants time to share in small groups a little bit about their prayer experience during this past week.

After the sharing I spoke a little bit about each of the four declarations in that first part of the creed: that God exists, that God is Father, that God is almighty and that God is creator of heaven and earth. After that, I opened it up for a discussion, allowing others to share their insights into one or another of those declarations.

You can stream the podcast of the talk I gave today from the icon below or can download it here. (The podcast runs for 12:59). You can find a copy of the prayer material the participants will pray with this week here.

The ABCs of the New Evangelization

I recently finished reading The Evangelization Equation: The Who, What, and How, written by Fr. James A. Wehner and sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. The book, published this year, has received high praise from several bishops and other commentators.

There are some things I really like about this book and I think a lot of what Fr. Wehner says about evangelization is both true and important. First, and near to my heart, is the point that the “goal of evangelization is not for us to simply hear truth and give intellectual assent to it. God doesn’t just want our heads; He wants our hearts.” The goal of evangelization is to transform our hearts, not merely to get us to give intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. In my view, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of inner transformation and so was happy to see that as a central part of the author’s discussion of the anthropological foundation of evangelization.

Second, the book correctly identifies evangelization as a task for everyone. Fr. Wehner puts great emphasis in helping people understand that the call to holiness is a universal call and that we are all called to “be more deliberate, purposeful, and committed to clearly sharing the Gospel with others.”

Third, although the book is longer on theory than on practical discussion of what makes for good evangelization, it does offer in one of the final chapters a set of principles essential for successfully carrying out the new evangelization, with some stories to accompany them. While nothing like a complete prescription, the chapter does identify some real challenges to effective evangelization and the hope is that it will stimulate some serious reflection about what is working and what is not.

I won’t say I agree with all of Fr. Wehner’s views about what evangeliation means and how he talks about certain issues, but there is much valuable to reflect on in this book.

There is one thing that bothered me as I was reading. Despite recognizing the Holy Spirit as the primary agent of evangelization, there is no mention of the importance of prayer until the conclusion of the book, which offers only a passing reference to prayer as being necessary to make our preaching and practice possible. In my view, a couple of sentences at the end of the book do not give prayer the emphasis it deserves. If our efforts at evangelization are going to be fruitful and well-guided, prayer is essential. We have to always be sure we are preaching God and not something else and if we are not people of prayer, we run a very great risk that we cease to preach God.