Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The theme song to Cheers, a sitcom from the 1990s, pointed out that “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Yesterday morning I arrived at St. Benedict’s Monastery, where I will spend ten days hopefully doing the final round of edits of the manuscript of my book on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism. The Monastery has a visiting scholar program (Studium), and this is my sixth stay here in the last several years.

As they always do, Srs. Ann Marie and Teresa, directors of Studium, had coffee and breakfast for me when I arrived. After breakfast, I had enough time to unpack in both my apartment and my office before it was time for noon prayer. At prayer time, I sat in my “usual” spot in Oratory, next to 89-year old Sr. Olivia, who was delighted to welcome me into our pew. After noon prayer, it was off to the Monastery dining room for lunch where I was warmly greeted by any number of the Sisters, including the prioress, someone who always makes you feel like you are the one person she has been waiting to see.

Hugs. Smiles. Welcome back greetings. Queries about my current project and about how my daughter is doing. It is hard to imagine being more embraced by a community. Welcomed into a place where everybody knows your name and is glad you came.

During my talk at our Lady of Lourdes on Sunday, someone commented that many Catholic churches are not welcoming of new people. I thought of that comment as I walked back from lunch yesterday. The Benedictines here at the monastery are a model of welcome. All of our Christian communities should be as welcoming.


Intentional Discipleship and the New Evangelization

As part of a four-week faith formation series on the new evangelization, I gave a talk yesterday at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church in Minneapolis on the theme of Intentional Discipleship and the New Evangelization.

In his Apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II wrote that the entire mission of the Church is concentrated and manifested in evangelization. The question fo rus is ow do we evangelize in the world in which we live today?

I began my talk by discussing some of the challenges we face in evangelizing today’s world, such as the secular society in which we live, the reality that religious identity s not static, and that most American Catholics are (in the words of Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, which I referred to a number of times in my talk) are “still at an early, essentially passive stage of spiritual development.” I then talked about the fact that active, personal discipleship in Christ is not optional or reserved for the few, but something we are all called to.

For us to be able to help others to be conscious, intentional disciples of Christ, we ourselves must encounter Christ in a direct way. I talked a little about how we encounter Christ and what difference that makes in our life. Finally, I shared several suggestions for helping others to do the same. Following my talk, we had a lively discussion about how all of this plays out in the lives (and parishes) in which the participants are involved.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast, which does not include the dialogue that followed my talk, runs for 30:17.

Identified As Christ’s Disciples

Some clubs have T-shirts to identify them. Some groups have hats or pins or some other visible sign anyone can see to identify them.

Some Christians (myself included) wear a crucifix. It is a sign by which others might identify us a Christian.

But in today’s Gospel from John, Jesus makes it quite simple. It is not about the crucifix. There are no special clothes. No pins, badges. Nothing we wear, no tangible object at all.

Instead, having given his followers the “new commandment” – the commandment that they love one another as he has loved them, he says: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It is hard to make it much plainer than that. As we used to sing, they will know we are Christians by our love. That is less a declarative statement than a challenge.

We ought ask ourselves every day, multiple times a day even: Do they know I am a Christian by my love? When people look at me do they see the love of which Christ spoke? And if the answer is no, what am I going to do about it?

To Pray is to Take Notice

I talk about prayer a lot in various programs that I offer. There are many ways to pray and people have many different understandings of what prayer is.

This excerpt from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Man’s Question for God came across my desk the other day. It speaks of what it means to pray in a very simple way:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live….

I love the sense of prayer as our response, prayer that which we offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

Heshcel’s words reminded me of one of May Oliver’s poems, Praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Pay attention. Take notice. And then respond with what is in your heart.

Dwelling Places in My Father’s House

I’ve heard many variations of a joke about a man who arrives at the gates of Heaven (each one with a different religion as the punch line).

St. Peter asks his religion and the man replies that he is a Methodist. St. Peter looked down his list and said,” Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another man arrived at the gates of Heaven. When asked his religion, he replies Catholic. St. Peter says, “Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third man arrived at the gates and when asked his religion, replied Jewish. St. Peter tells him, “Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The man tells St. Peter he understands putting people of different religions in different rooms, but asks why he should be quiet when passing Room 8. St. Peter told him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?

Jesus’ statement that there are many dwellings in His Father’s house promises room for everyone; and not just room for everyone, but room for everyone. For me, the statement is a reminder not just that there is plenty of space, but that those welcomed will not all look the same. Not everyone for whom there is room necessarily fits someone else’s picture of who deserves to be in heaven.

There are some (perhaps) many people who think only they and their kind will be in heaven. I decided a long time ago that the question of who is in heaven is one that is way above my pay grade. But I do take seriously – and take solace in – what Jesus told his disciples: there are many dwellings in his Father’s house, and there is room for many different sorts of people.

The Sacrament of Confirmation

Last night was the last session of a three-week program Bill Nolan and I gave at St. Thomas Apostle on the Sacraments of Initiation. Our subject for this final week was the sacrament of Confirmation.

Our talk, and the discussion it prompted from the participants, covered a range of topics. Bill began with a bit of history about the sacrament and the changes in theological understanding of it. I then spoke about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a little bit about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament being one of commissioning.

We also talked about the challenges of ensuring that Confirmation is conveyed as a step in a life-long process of conversion, and not a “graduation ritual” from faith formation, a topic that prompted some good discussion.

Near the end of our time together, Bill led a guided reflection on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (about that last 10 minute of the podcast.)

You can access a recording of Bill and my talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 1:04:45.

One final note: last night was the penultimate adult faith formation session of the 12-13 year at St. Thomas Apostle, but the last one I will be attending, as I will be at St. Benedict’s Monastery next week. So I take this opportunity to thank Bill Nolan for a wonderful year of collaboration, and to thank all of those who participated for their generous sharing with us.

Me and My Computer

I don’t tend to be attached to things. There is little I own that I could not part with fairly easily, by which I mean I might be initially a bit upset if it were destroyed, but would get over reasonably quickly.

The exception is my computer. I sometimes joke that if Jesus said drop everything and come follow me, I’d ask, “Could I back up my computer first.” Everything I am working on is on my computer, although I do try to back-up things reasonably frequently (kind of).

I’ve now been without my laptop for two days. Some weirdness began on Friday, affecting some of my operations and preventing me from backing anything up. I brought the computer into the law school IT folks Monday morning and by Monday afternoon, it was in worse shape than in the morning. IT worked on it all day yesterday and will continue working this morning.

I think it is pretty fair to say my behavior Monday was pretty unimpressive. I was practically unable to focus on any work as I fretted over not having my computer and not knowing what was that status of all that was on my computer. Seriously, you would think some major tragedy was at hand as I paced unhappily around my office. Monday afternoon I wrote to a friend of mine, “At times like these I wonder how much progress I’ve made from years of meditating, as I sit here trying to focus on my breath and reach a state of calm when what I really want to do is climb the walls (or jump out the window).”

As soon as sent the note I realized the craziness of allowing myself to get crazy over this. Was some horrendous tragedy going to occur as a result of my being without my computer for a couple of days? True I had a set of projects I had planned to get substantial work done on this week, but was the world really going to suffer if they were delayed by a couple of days? And even if the worst happened – that everything that hadn’t been backed up was lost, would that really be a the end of the world?

No, no and no. I took a few more breaths. Yes, this was (is) annoying. Yes, it was (is) frustrating. Yes, it affected (and continues to affect) my work. But it is what it is. A few more deep breaths. It will resolve itself and no worrying on my part will affect how that resolution occurs. So let go the anxiety. Let it be. It worked – yesterday I was much calmer about the whole situation.

I, of course, still hope that when I get into the office this morning I will hear some good news indicating that I will soon have a functioning computer back. But I go in with peace in my heart and an ability to accept whatever news I am given.

Reggae Priest, Ghetto Priest

This past weekend I read Joseph Pearce’s Candles in the Dark: The Authorized Biography of Fr. Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor, which had been sent to me for review by St. Benedict’s Press.

I had known very little about the work of Fr. Ho Lung before reading this book. Given my deep commitment to the Vincentian charism, I confess that the first person who came to mind as I read about Fr. Ho Lung was St. Vincent de Paul, whose commitment to serving the needs of the poor and seeing Christ in the faces of the poor seems very much in evidence here.

While there are certainly matters on which Fr. Ho Lung and I would not be in agreement (he seems to bemoan women in the workplace), there are many inspring things about him presented in this biography. First and foremost, he is a model of “love as self-sacrificial giving of oneself to the Other.” He seems to seek nothing for himself and everything for the sake of those to whom he ministers. At the same time, like Vincent, he understood that “Catholics who give themselves in service to the poor are not merely social workers. They are not motivated primarily by the desire to make people more comfortable physically,” although they do that also, “but by the desire to serve Jesus in His presence among them.” And he has attracted large numbers to minister with him; his Missionaries of the Poor now have more than 500 brothers serving in various places around the world.

Second, his combining prayer and action is something that comes through clearly. His call was to social justice but at the same time, a call to a serious prayer life and deeper spirituality. As someone with an Ignatian spirituality, I was struck by the description of his referring to figures such as Merton and Hopkins, “not as an intellectual or academic exercise. No, he gave them flesh, made them live, so as to enliven a passage of scripture or a point for meditation.”

Third, Fr. Ho Lung is presented as someone who had a sense of humor. He was serious about his faith, but knew how to have a good time. Not only in his music – although that is a not insignificant part of his story (the “Reggae Priest” received many awards for his music), but other times he could be extremely playful. Many people could benefit form the reminder that being a good Christian does not mean walking around somber all of the time.

One of the things that struck me particularly was Fr. Ho Lung’s response to the question whether he feared for his life. It was a legitimate question given his willingness to take public (and confrontational) stands on issues of social justice and to be direct in fighting the drug rings in his locale. His response to the question was, “Oh no! I have to die for something.” There is something very powerful for me in that response. We all have to die, after all. But better to die for something that matters than not. I’m not saying his response gives me a desire to affirmatively purse martyrdom, but it does, I think, help provide strength to fight even when doing so carries a cost.

Two things minimized my appreciation of the book, which may be related. First, there are a number of points at which the author has a very defensive tone in talking about different aspects of Fr. Ho Lung and/or his ministry, as though he needs to defend him against attack against his orthodoxy or fidelity to the Magisterium. Yet I see no indication of any need for such defensiveness, no indication anyone has seriously challenged his fidelity. Amusingly, the defense of the connection between Fr. Ho Lung’s orthodoxy and the vernacular style of his music seems to be in response to the author’s own misgivings rather than anyone else’s.

Second, the author’s own biases come through strongly and I think his recounting of the life and work of Fr. Ho Lung would have been more effective without the distraction of those biases. One could, for example, explain Fr. Ho Lung’s decision to leave the Jesuits and form is own order without painting the entire population of Jesuits as modernists who have lost a focus on Christ. One could explain Fr. Ho Lung’s approach to his ministry without wholesale degradation of liberation theology. (And in this context, I found the author’s treatment of the Catholic Social Principle of solidarity to be woefully incomplete.) One could applaud the way Christianity has taken route in some of the places in which Fr. Ho Lung ministered without dismissing “the West” as having disintegrated “into deconstructed particles, devoid of faith or reason and lusting after nihilism of the culture of death.” Many of us do not share the author’s views on these or any number of other matters, and those who don’t may very well be turned off by his tone.

Happy Earth Day 2013

Every year on April 22, more than one billion people take part in Earth Day, a day designed to focus our attention on the need to take action to protect our planet and its resources.

One of the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching is stewardship – the idea that we have a responsibility to care for creation. God gave humans dominion over the earth’s resources, not for us to use according to our individual will, but for the good of all human beings. Stewardship obligates us to care for the earth, to use its resources wisely, and to preserve thsse resources for future generations. Stewardship also means respect for all of creation.

Our bulletin at Christ the King this week noted some sobering facts, including that

– more than one in every six people around the world lacks access to safe water for drinking, cooking and cleaning and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation.

– 70% of coral reefs are either threatened or destroyed, coral reefs that provide food, storm protection, jobs, recreation, and other income sources for more than 500 million people worldwide.

– over the last decade, approximately 13 million hectares of foret have been lost each year, forests that 1.6 billion people depend on in some way for their livelihood.

– more than 22% of the world’s plants are at risk of extinction and more than 24% of the world’s mammals and 12% of the world’s bird species are threatened.

What are going to do about it? Being good stewards requires a combination of individual and group actions.

Each of us needs to think about what we can do to make a difference.

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In today’s short Gospel from John, Jesus tells says,

My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.

In Revelation we hear that “the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

You might want to reflect on those words today. Or sit with one of the many visual representations of the Good Shepherd. Here is one of my favorites: