Timeless Wisdom from the Book of Sirach

Although I sometimes pray my way methodically through a book of the Bible, sometimes I open to a page at random and pray with the passage I find. The latter approach yielded this passage from the Book of Sirach, which struck me as pretty darn good advice:

Before investigating, find no fault;
examine first, then criticize.
Before hearing, answer not,
and interrupt no one in the middle of his speech.
Dispute not about what is not your concern;
in the strife of the arrogant take no part.

Regarding the first part of the advice – we often have a tendency to react immediately to things, a tendency aggravated by the instant means of communication available to us via the internet. All, or at least most of us, are also guilty at times of accepting things we hear without investigation. So the advice to listen, investigate and examine before we respond…especially before we respond critically is important.

No less important is the advice to “dispute not what is not your concern.” This would seem pretty obvious but I know there are times when I find myself in aggravating exchanges over something, only to step back and realize the issue is of no importance to me. We can so easily get caught up in the moment that we invest enormous energy over things that really are not our concern. (Recognizing this, of course, requires a mindfulness we sometimes lack.)

Think I’ll see what other good advice the Book of Sirach has to offer.


Newfound Faith: The Fourth Fisherman

One of the great things about being asked on occasion to review books on faith and spirituality is coming across books that otherwise hadn’t found their way onto my radar screen. The most recent to fall in that category, sent to me for review by Random House, is Joe Kissack’s The Fourth Fisherman: How Three Mexican Fishermen Who Came Back from the Dead Changed My Life and Saved My Marriage. It is an inspiring story…actually two inspiring stories in one book – that of Joe Kissack and that of three Mexican fishermen.

Five Mexican fisherman set out from a small town on the western coast of Mexico in October 2005.. A horrible storm damaged their boat and took away much of their supplies, including their fishing net. It also made it impossible for them to get back to shore. In the nine months they were adrift in the Pacific, two of the men died and all were given up for lost. Amazingly three were rescued. (Their rescue got a lot of worldwide press attention, although I didn’t recall the incident when I started to read the book.)

The story of the fisherman, and how the Bible and their faith helped them stay alive, is told powerfully by Kissack. Even if the only story here were that of the three men who were lost at sea, the book would be a worthwhile read. But there is a second story.

The fourth fisherman in the book title is Kissack himself. Interwoven with the story of the Mexican fisherman is Kissack’s own story. First, the story of his fall: How he went from a man on top of the world – high-paying prestigious job, nice home and everything money could buy – to a state of addiction, anxiety and joblessness. (Those who suffer from depression and anxiety or who have experienced drug or alcohol dependency will recognize much in Kissack’s self-portrait.) Second, the story of his redemption: how God found him at his lowest point and how he started to dig himself out. And how his search to meet the three Mexican fisherman helped change his life.

Regarding both the Mexican fisherman and Kissock, the book is a story of healing and restoration. Their stories are different – as someone points out to Kissock at one point the fishermen looked lost, but weren’t lost at all because they had God, whereas Kissock didn’t look lost because he had everything, but really was lost. But there is much to learn in looking at the stories side-by-side.

This is a book you will pick up and not want to put down until you are finished with it. The writing is good, the story is compelling and the hand of God is evident throughout.

Lent: 40 Days of Rehab

“Nothing kills a great buzz like 28 days of rehab.” Thus began Fr. Dale’s sermon at Mass at Christ the King yesterday morning. He talked about the self-absorption and isolation that addiction to drugs and alcohol fosters, how one addicted to alcohol shuns friends and family who might disapprove of their behavior and locks themselves away with their bottle (and perhaps some cooking shows on television). Why, he asked, would one choose alcohol over loving community – the darkness and isolation of addiction over the light and love of family and friends?

In today’s Gospel from St. John, we hear the line so frequently quoted or cited: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. But the offer of eternal life isn’t always accepted. The Gospel goes on to say that (like the addict) “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light.”

Why would anyone choose darkness to light? Why, when God offers abundant love and eternal life, when God keeps trying to draw us closer and closer in God’s loving embrace, do people choose to stay in darkness?

The darkness is less satisfactory, but as Fr. Dale observed, it is also familiar. We can hide things in the dark, we can avoid the hard truths that the light exposes.

Lent, he suggested, is like rehab. We come to this time each year to try to respond more fully to the invitation God always offers for us to come into the light. To cast off the familiar in favor of that which is not only more satisfying, but which is the most, the best, that we can be. Coming further out of the darkness can be hard – some hurtful and painful things can get exposed when we come into the light. But the payoff is priceless.

Fr. Dale closed his homily by observing, “Nothing cures a Christian like 40 days of rehab.”

We are now 26 days into Lent. How is your rehab going?

Christ in…Everyone

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day and, like me, several of my Facebook friends posted as their status some or all of the prayer known as St. Patrick’s “Breastplate Prayer.” The part I posted included the lines:

Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I sat reflecting on the words yesterday afternoon (sitting outside on my deck on the beautifully warm and sunny day we had).

Being Christ to others is important, but not enough. That is, the motivation to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world is a beautiful and wonderful one, but it is not less important that we see Christ in everyone else that we come in contact with, that we see Christ in everyone we encounter.

I think that is the part we forget sometimes. That Christ is in the person who just said something that irritated me. That Christ is in the person who ignored me while I was trying to ask her a question. That Christ is in the person who wouldn’t let me get into the lane I needed to be in on the highway.

Remembering that Christ is in every person we encounter, invites us to look at others with a greater generosity of spirit, with more open and loving eyes. I think particularly when someone does something that might generate a harsh or critical reaction on our part, if we can be mindful enough to remind ourselves, “Christ is in this person,” then perhaps our own reactions will be less harsh or less critical. If we can remember “Christ is in this person,” I think it could make an enormous difference in how we respond.

Lent as Pilgrimage: A Weekend Retreat for Women

As I mentioned in a a prior post, last weekend I gave a weekend women’s lent retreat at St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, where I served as a staff associate until my move to Minneapolis in 2007. Many of the women who participated attend this particular retreat weekend year after year, and it has been my blessing and privilege to lead them in the retreat four of the last five years. It is always a very special weekend for me.

This year, my them was A Lenten Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a wonderful image, not only for Lent, but for our lives as Christians: We are, for the entirety of our lives, on a holy journey toward full union with God.

In my opening talk on Friday evening, I talked about why I think pilgrimage is a good image for our lives and for our Lenten journey. We also spent some time that evening focusing on our own journey thus far. On Saturday, inspired by the Canterbury Tales, my motif was that or narrative, considering in our three sessions, respectively, Tales of Discipleship, False Steps on the Pilgrims’ Trail, and Jesus Tale. We ended Saturday evening with a powerful ritual of coming to the cross. Sunday morning, we reflected on what it means to be Pilgrims in a Post-Resurrection World.

I recorded the five talks I gave at the retreat. You can download the podcasts of each of the five talks here. (After this week, i.e., after new podcasts start to be posted, go to March archives to find these most easily.) Or, you can listen to the talks at the icons below. (Note that for copyright reasons, the podcast does not include songs I played for the participants.) You can find the prayer material for several of the sessions here.

Friday evening: Introduction – Pilgrimage as a Metaphor for Our Lives:

Saturday morning: Tales of Discipleship:

Saturday afternoon: False Steps on the Pilgrim’s Trail:

Saturday evening: Jesus Tale:

Sunday morning: Pilgrimage in a Post-Resurrection World:

Invitation not Coercion

I read a column by Margaret Silf in a recent issue of America Magazine speaks a simple but profound truth, that is, that “the spirit of the Gospel is a spirit of attraction, not coercion. Silf writes

A wise saying tells us that “God draws, the devil drives.” It follows that when our hearts are feeling drawn by the power of divine attraction, there God is at work; but if we are feeling the pressure of coercion, this is not of God. It is not hard to see the difference between human communities that revolve around a center of attraction, where love grows and draws, and those that rely on fences and demarcations that keep the flock within the prescribed boundaries. Where the spirit of love is the center of attraction, many will find their way to that center, drawn like iron filings to a powerful magnet.

I think Silf’s observation is an important one to remember for several reasons. First, it helps us in our own discernment of what is from God and what is not from God. Are we feeling drawn or are we feeling coerced?

Second, it helps us in our evangelization of others. Are we inviting or are we demanding? Are we radiating love or control? Do people look at us and see the pull of divine attraction?

The two are not unrelated. If we recognize God’s invitation and respond to it in the spirit in which it is extended – if we live in the Gospel spirit of attraction – others will respond to that. As Silf recognizes, “Where the spirit of love and warmth and light flows, people will always be attracted to its source.”

Interpreting the Law in Judaism

Yesterday was the first part of a two-part Mid-Day Dialogue on Faith on the subject of Interpreting Scripture and Ascertaining Religious Law. Our speaker yesterday was my friend Rabbi Norman M. Cohen, the senior rabbi at Bet Shalom congregation in Minnetonka, who I have mentioned in several previous posts.

Rabbi Cohen began by talking about our need for law. In Jewish thought, because there is and always will be a tension between the good inclination and the evil inclination – an ongoing battle for the human will – we need to pay attention to and follow the teachings of our tradition as they can be found in the evolving system of law. He then talked about how the evolving development of Jewish law.

There was so much packed into Rabbi Cohen’s talk, but let me highlight only two thoughts. First, is the misconception that Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament and Christianity the religion of the New Testament. That phrasing, he suggested, runs the risk of a philosophy of triumphalism which suggests that “Christianity’s beginning marked the end of Judaism,” as though Judaism is “the roots, the purpose of which is only to provide sustenance for the tree that grows above it.”

Instead, he suggested, the better image is that or “roots nourish[ing] more than one tree growing out of that fertile ground, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity…both of which developed in the centuries following the Roman’s destruction of the ancient Temple.”

The second has to do with interpretation of the Bible. Judaism is a dynamic religious system. Rabbi Cohen talked about the ancient rabbis who adopted a creative approach to Biblical understanding and interpretation. “They insisted that every text, every sentence, every word, and eery letter has various potential levels of meaning, all of which are valuable and precious, but none of which should have claim to be the sole explanation.”

This has the obvious implication that a literal reading of the Bible can never yield full truth and also provides a response to those who poke fun of Bible stories that can’t possibly be literally true to modern minds. Giving the example of Gulliver’s Travels, in which we easily see both a fanciful children’s story and a story with deeper levels of sophistication and meaning, Rabbi Cohen suggested that to “summarily dismiss certain Biblical stories, ideas or concepts indicates only our inability to appreciate the many layers of meaning intended by Biblical redactors.” I think he is quite correct in saying that we “often grant them less respect than we do Jonathan Swift. And it is we who are the poorer for our missing the opportunity to see beyond the superficial meaning of the text.”

At the second session of this program, which will be on March 28, Rabbi Cohen will return for a dialogue on the issue of how we read the Bible and ascertain religious law that will include me and my colleagues, Mark Osler Fr. Dan Griffith. (UST Friends: feel free to join us even if you missed yesterday’s gathering; just let Bethany Fletcher know you will be there, since lunch will be served.)

Faithful Disciples

Yesterday was the fourth session of the Lent Retreat in Daily Living we are offering at UST Law School this lent. This week the focus of the retreatants prayer will be models of discipleship.

The reflection at the gathering today was given by my friend and colleague Chato Hazelbaker, who is an Evangelical Christian. The prayer material for the week (actually two weeks, since next week is Spring Break so we won’t meet again until March 27) covers eleven different individuals, but Chato focused his talk on three of them: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus (who Chato discussed together with Joseph of Arimathea) and the “good” Thief.

Although Chato’s discussion of all three offered much to reflect on, for me the most powerful was what he said about the thief and the meaning of his simple prayer and Jesus’ response to that prayer. The thief, knowing who Jesus is, prays, “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The response is not “if you do x” or “if you don’t do y,” but the promise of eternal union with God in response to that prayer of faith. Jesus’ response, Chato suggested, means that we can live and celebrate Easter all the time – knowing that Jesus already died for me. We can live our lives already knowing how our story ends. That is what our faith gives us.

You can access a recording of Chato’s talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 28:09.) A copy of the prayer material for this week of prayer is here.

The Centrality of God

I just returned from several days in New York, where I presented both an evening program on Thursday, Growing in Love and Wisdom, on the subject of my forthcoming OUP book of that title, and a weekend women’s Lent retreat on the theme of A Lenten Pilgrimage. Both were wonderful experiences.

Since Thursday evening’s program was about adapting meditations drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer, not surprisingly, several questions both during the Q&A portion of the program and afterward were about my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism. (That is a subject that will be addressed in much detail in the book manuscript I’m finally about to get back to now that the meditation book is in production.)

One woman, someone who described herself as not having given up Catholicism but who primarily practices Zen Buddhist meditation, came up to me after the program to express surprise at my return to “traditional Catholicism.” She was surprised by my mention at one point about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the primary source of her “traditional” label, I think, since I don’t tend to be labeled a traditional Catholic all that often) and wanted to know what was missing in Buddhism that I had to come back to Catholicism.

I’ve addressed the subject of Reconciliation in posts before, and I shared with the woman some of what I’ve written here in the past. (See e.g., here.) I also shared with her (to her surprise) that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a confessional practice for monks and nuns that doesn’t look very different from the Catholic sacrament. I engaged in the practice many times while I was a Buddhist nun.

As to the “what was missing” question, my immediate answer was the centrality of personal relationship with God. My years as a Buddhist were incredibly worthwhile and important to my spiritual growth. But, although I never before framed the question to myself the way the woman did, what was missing in Buddhism for me was the centrality of God. For some people, that may not matter, and their spiritual lives can be complete in ways that don’t require God at the center. But not me. I came (albeit after a lot of years) to realize that without God something was missing. And not just a something that could be replaced by something else. But the something that is irreplaceable and without which nothing else could make sense. The something that defines everything about who I am – that is the ground of my being.

Maybe that does make me traditional. But, if so, that is a definition of traditional that I’m completely comfortable with.

By the way: You can listen to the talk I gave last Thursday evening on Growing in Love and Wisdom at the icon below. You can also download the podcast here. (The podcast runs for 42:33.) In the talk, I explored some of the common values and understandings underlying Christianity and Buddhism and talked about how meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition can enhance our prayer lives as Christians.

Patience During Transitions

I noticed recently that I have the most difficulty being patient during transition periods, that is, during the last stages of something.

The last few minutes before a plane takes off, after everyone is in their seats with their seat belts buckled. Why aren’t we in the air yet?

The last ten minutes or so of a meeting. All the business is finished, why is there chit-chat instead of adjournment so I can leave?

Waiting for a check at the end of the meal in a restaurant. They cleared the dessert dishes away, why aren’t they bringing the check?

As I was reflecting on this (having noticed my impatience during the interim between the time my plane landed and the time we were permitted to disembark), I realized that my impatience in situations like that has to do with the fact that I’ve mentally already moved on to the next thing. My mind says, this event/experience is over and so time between “over” and the beginning of the next thing is wasted time.

As soon as I articulated that to myself, I could see the problem: the unstated assumption behind my impatience is that nothing in the present moment could possibly be worthwhile. Of course there could be something quite worthwhile, and the lack of mindfulness inherent in my impatience would make me miss it.

My resolve: to try in such situations to stay in the present moment. To let go the idea that it is already time for the next thing and to stay with the present thing until the end.